Social Finance

Healing Through Financial Transaction

May 9, 2014

This CEO letter was originally published in the Spring 2014 RSF Quarterly.

Dear Friends,

We’re so happy to be celebrating RSF’s 30th anniversary this year.  It is an honor and a privilege for me to be leading this amazing organization, having been here for just 22% of that time (since 2007).

Since 1984, we have made nearly $300 million in loans to social enterprises.  We have a 100% repayment rate (principal + interest) to our investors, and a 2% cumulative loss rate on our loan portfolio (which is extraordinarily low by any objective measure.)  We now have over 1,500 investors and $100 million in our flagship Social Investment Fund.

Additionally, we have facilitated over $100 million in grants, with the pace increasing to between $10-15 million per year recently.  We currently have a staff of 38 with a $6 million annual operating budget.

We are proud of our growth, but more important is our focus on potency, not scale.  We have worked extraordinarily hard to create a culture in which each relationship is sacred.  We want to shift the conventionally antagonistic power dynamic between provider-of-capital and receiver-of-capital.  This takes time and considerable effort.

I recently visited one of our borrowers in central Florida, called Uncle Matt’s.  As a 4th generation citrus grower, “Uncle Matt” McLean and his family make organic orange juice.   It’s super tasty, and it comes with a twist.

Today, there are over 600,000 acres of citrus groves in Florida—only 3,000 acres are certified organic.  Uncle Matt’s oversees the majority of this organic acreage.  About 15 years ago, they were told by scientists from the University of Florida that their groves would likely be in serious jeopardy due to what’s known as “citrus greening” – a bacteria that is steadily wiping out citrus fruit worldwide.  It turns out that the organic groves are much more resistant to the bacteria than conventional groves.  The scientists were wrong—they thought the genetically-modified, pesticide/herbicide regimes of the conventional growers would be more successful, and had told the McLean’s they were crazy.  Now these same scientists are visiting the McLean’s farms on a weekly basis in order to study exactly how their organic methods are working.  Currently, we are working to help the McLean family to purchase a 170-acre grove that is being threatened by housing development from nearby Orlando.  It’s possible the solution to the global “citrus greening” epidemic lies in the organic methods from this tiny plot of land, and could ultimately save millions of trees worldwide.

This is an example of our focus on potency.  We have been to the McLean groves twice in the short time we’ve had this loan—their previous bankers from Orlando had never visited the farms, only wanting to see the processing facilities.  We are trying to find investors for the land purchase, introducing them to biodynamic growers around the country, and connecting them to other organic food entrepreneurs in the RSF borrower community.

We believe we’re helping to create an energetic field where healing-through-financial-transactions is possible.  Our plan is to steadily expand our trust network over the next 30 years, one relationship at a time.  We look forward to engaging all of you in that process.

Warmly,

Don

Don Shaffer is President & CEO at RSF Social Finance

The Poetry of Transformation

April 29, 2014

RSF_30th_purpleThis article was originally published in the Spring 2014 RSF Quarterly.

by John Bloom

One beautiful aspect of transformation is the evolutionary element of continuity. Nature is alive with these mysterious metamorphic processes, from seed to leaf, from DNA to a human being. If one can accept that even in a world full of intentionally disruptive activities there is an underlying connective thread, then our task is not to react to “revolutionary” events as isolated, but rather to understand them instead as symptoms of this deeper process. In the grand scheme, one could call this the evolution of human consciousness, and there is poetry to its path—though not always an easy one. For example, what if we took the performance of the stock market as a barometric measure of the human spirit? What would that really say about us as individuals, our relationships, and the culture in which this investment marketplace is embedded? Even if I have no shares or investments, am I really separate from the stock market? And, how could I hold that thought if I really believe (and I do) that we are fully interdependent and interconnected?

It is not an accident that I chose the example of Wall Street. At RSF we often cite it as the antithesis of what we are trying to accomplish through our purpose of transforming the way the world works with money. What we call our theory of change—to make every transaction direct, transparent, personal, and based on long-term relationships—is actually our theory of transformation. We know that, no matter how active and thoughtful we are, we are not going to flip the human-institutional-behavior-money-transaction switch over night. We understand that each individual has to take him or herself through a process and practice. And we know there are more people who have come to this realization, and many more working to get there. From this perspective, our clients join us as a community of practice and as transformational activists/participants.

Given the challenge of gathering a thirty year perspective on the evolution of RSF Social Finance (and I have been honored to be part of RSF half that time), the question that arose for me was: How does an organization committed to transformation lead by example? This question, of course, brings one back to origin stories and historical data. This information is important, and RSF’s emergence in 1984 through the loan to the fire-destroyed Pine Hill Waldorf School is well storied. Many more stories have transpired over the last thirty years as a browse through our RSF Quarterly and Annual Report archives would show. Both inwardly and outwardly much has changed. We are now nearly forty staff, our loan portfolio is approximately 50/50 non-profit and for-profit and the character and quality of those loans have grown more complex. Where once Waldorf schools were our anchor borrowers they are now less than half. For an organization founded to further the work of those directly connected to Rudolf Steiner’s work, it could feel to some that we have not only changed, but also left anthroposophy behind. This is not at all the case. Many of our early clients assumed Waldorf schools defined that relationship, but we have now stepped far more fully into supporting the evolution of an associative economy—as Steiner imagined economic life should unfold—through such efforts as our quarterly pricing meetings.

Despite the allure of talking about all that we have accomplished, I find myself drawn to trace what I would consider the more character-based aspects of the organization—not so much what it has done, but rather who it is and what it stands for as an expression of its being. If one follows this thread of core values and practices, the steady evolution of a spiritually inspired financial organization, and specifically the inspiration of Rudolf Steiner’s work, becomes visible in a way that speaks of continuity—a kind of poetry of transformation.

There is a bit of the then and now in how I will approach this exploration. And, there will be some language that seems a bit esoteric as RSF was first and foremost a financial arm of the Anthroposophical Society in America, founded to further Rudolf Steiner’s work. In addition to this founding commitment there was a vision for working in a new way in finance and with money. Here is a selection from “The Foundation’s Ideals ” from the 1985 brochure:

To serve as an objective third party in transactions between donors, lenders [investors in current parlance], and receivers of financial resources. Interest in the intentions of others is its primary focus.

To foster:

  • A threefolding of social life that reflects the threefold organism of the human being
  • Increased understanding of the fundamental social law and its working in society
  • A spirit of determined cooperation in the financing of the work of the anthroposophical movement

[Steiners fundamental social law is, in abridged form: the degree to which we work to meet the needs of others, our needs will be met. Steiner was asking us to recognize the primacy of interest in the other over self-interest]

Fast forward to the present. Here are the first two of RSF’s current operating principles all of which were developed collaboratively by current staff, none of whom would likely have seen the original brochure. All twelve principles can be found on our website along with our purpose and values.

  • Transformation: We are committed to working with those who seek to transform their relationship to money and with those who seek to redefine the core assumptions of our economic and financial systems. We strive to lead by example.
  • Service: We co-create RSF Social Finance with our stakeholders – staff, board, investors, donors, borrowers, grantees, asset managers, partners, and friends. Through listening, we try to discern what is being called for next in a spirit of service. Long-term relationships are of primary importance. We place high value on intention.

I could do a detailed analysis between the earlier brochure statements and our current operating principles, but am hoping that the focus on intention, interest in our clients and the world, determined cooperation/co-creation, and a view of working with money as a tool for cultural change stand out immediately.

In researching this material, I found myself taken aback at how much significant outward change, growth and visibility could happen, and at the same time, how slowly and steadily RSF’s core being has evolved to becoming reflective of founding ideals, yet more linguistically true to those currently doing the work. It has also become accessible to an increasingly broad audience.

So how has RSF, an organization committed to transformation, continually transformed itself in a way that garners trust and engagement for public benefit? Such an organization listens thoughtfully and learns deeply through its interest in others. It holds that wisdom is held in the wider community rather than only by the organization itself. At the same time it reflects on what the world is asking, the opportunities it presents, and, in the spirit of inquiry, asks how its core principles can be practiced and developed through service. As an organization, RSF works at knowing itself while deepening its connections to its spiritual well-spring as a way to best prepare to be of service to the world.

Money and financial transactions are RSF’s tools. So we continue, thirty years later, to benefit from Rudolf Steiner’s insights, from the insights of RSF’s founders, and from the gifts of wisdom and resources from staff and clients, so that personal and organizational change invite and lead the cultural and financial system transformation needed for a regenerative future.

John Bloom is Senior Director of Organizational Culture at RSF Social Finance.

30 Years of RSF Social Finance

April 7, 2014

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RSF_30th_purpleWe are thrilled to kick off our 30th anniversary celebration this month with the latest RSF Quarterly, which reflects on RSF’s transformation since 1984. Read insights from John Bloom, RSF’s Senior Director of Organizational Culture, on what it means to be inspired by the work of Rudolf Steiner and how we remain committed to transformation. Guest essayist and author Charles Eisenstein expounds on investing in the ecological age and how such investment could be rethought of as gift. RSF community members share how they’ve transformed the way they work with money. Also, take a look at how we have grown over the last 30 years in a History of RSF timeline.

We would like to thank all of our clients, partners, and friends who have been a part of reaching this exciting milestone as a leader in the growing field of social finance. Keep an eye out for more 30th celebration news, here, on the Reimagine Money blog.

To download an electronic copy of the Quarterly, click here.

RSF Links Socially-Conscious Borrowers, Investors

December 18, 2013

RSF was recently featured in an article in the The Press-Democrat. Author Cathy Bussewitz interviewed Don Shaffer, President & CEO, and other attendees of the recent Pricing Meeting in Santa Rosa, CA.

It was a strange place for a meeting about interest rates.

On a cold night at the Summerfield Waldorf School in Santa Rosa, while a crowd mingled in the school auditorium munching on locally made hors d’oeuvres under the warm lights of a Christmas tree, a group of borrowers and investors hashed out specifics on the details of their loans.

The event was held by RSF Social Finance, a San Francisco-based nonprofit that provides loans and investment opportunities to socially-conscious enterprises. It was part of RSF’s attempt to make finance more transparent, by bringing borrowers and lenders together in one room.

“Our stated mission is to transform the way the world works with money, and the way we look at it is one relationship at a time,” said Don Shaffer, president and CEO of RSF.

Press-Dem image

Esmerelda Arreola packages tea displays of Guayaki yerba mate at its Sebastopol facility. (John Burgess/ Press Democrat)

“The way I describe our financial system today is as complex, opaque and anonymous, based on short-term outcomes,” Shaffer said. “And what we try to do at RSF is to model financial transactions that are direct, transparent and personal, based on long-term relationships.”

To accomplish that goal, RSF creates an unusual opportunity for the borrowers — companies like Sebastopol beverage maker Guayaki — to meet with investors. In the gatherings, known as “pricing meetings,” the borrowers explain how they’ve been spending their money and how a change to their interest rate would impact their bottom line. Investors have a chance to meet the entities they’re helping to develop, and they also get a chance to chime in on what a change to the interest rate would do for their financial outlook.

“The pricing meetings are so powerful,” said Susanne Karch, owner of Estate Services, based in San Rafael, who has invested about $17,000 in RSF. “After those meetings, I always go home and write another check.”

Read the full article here

 

Serving the Underserved: Marketing to Make a Difference

October 28, 2013

RSF and borrowers, Indigenous and Common Market, were recently featured in Forbes. Author Patrick Hanlon, shares stories of social entrepreneurs across the world using the power of business to address economic and social challenges.

timetothink-300x222The numbers who are underserved is beyond counting. The important news is that the ways we help to support other human beings is evolving, transforming.

The tipping point is gyrating like a mobius strip.

“Structurally it has been a little botched,” says Don Shaffer, president and chief executive officer of RSF Social Finance. “The emergence of impact investing is encouraging.”

Impact investments are made to companies, organizations, and funds with the intention to generate measurable social and environmental impact. This is a flip on typical venture capital investing, where most firms are in search of scalable opportunities.

“We are the opposite,” says Shaffer. “If our financial system today is complex, opaque and anonymous, the world we would like to see is direct, transparent and personal—based on long-term relationships.”

Shaffer cites two more differences. First, RSF Social Finance is funded by individuals and families, not by institutional investors. This means they are not driven by quarter-to-quarter financial results. They can take the longer view.

Second, RSF looks at companies designing new platforms that create wholesale change. That means the funded company itself may remain local, but their concept may be scalable to other communities.

Read the full article here

Moving Social Finance Forward: An Interview with Ted Levinson

September 12, 2013

Ted Levinson, Director of Lending, RSF Social Finance

Ted Levinson, Director of Lending, RSF Social Finance

Originally published on Social Velocity

Interview by Nell Edgington

Nell: RSF Social Finance is really the leader in the social finance market, you’ve been doing this long before anyone started talking about a “social capital marketplace.” Given that long history, how do you view the current state of the social capital market? Are we where we need to be to funnel enough and the right kinds of capital to social change efforts? And if not, how do we get there?

Ted: RSF has a twenty-nine year operating history, but it’s still early days for the field of social finance. The industry is at the same stage of development as natural food stores were thirty years ago – we’re established, we’re growing, we’re doing good work, and yet we’re still considered a fringe movement. I believe we are on the cusp of mainstream acceptance which will mean a much broader audience of impact investors (especially young people and unaccredited investors) and far greater demand for social capital from the growing number of social enterprises that are just now becoming investment-ready.

There’s been a shift in society’s view of natural food stores – we’ve overcome our fear of the bulk bins and now all grocery stores look more like natural food stores. I expect the same thing to happen with our conventional financial institutions which are just now beginning to pay attention to social finance.

What the field really needs is to expand the financial products available to social enterprises and address some of the existing gaps. Frustrated social entrepreneurs may disagree, but I think the angel capital and large-scale venture capital spaces are meeting the needs of for-profits. Incubators, business plan competitions and seed funds are providing modest amounts of funding to emerging non-profits and for-profits. RSF and some of our friends including Nonprofit Finance Fund, Calvert and New Resource Bank are addressing the middle market market.

The big voids in social finance include:

  • True “risk capital” for non-profit social enterprises. We need more foundations willing to place bets on high-potential organizations.
  • Bigger finance players or (better yet) a more robust consortium of social finance organizations that can band together to meet the $5 million + needs of high growth social enterprises such as Evergreen Lodge, Playworks and other organizations that are reaching scale.

I believe the field will get there but we’re playing “catch-up” now and social entrepreneurs are an impatient bunch.

Nell: RSF does something pretty revolutionary in that you combine philanthropic giving with impact investing, whereas these two sides of the social capital marketplace have not yet really found a way to work together in any large scale or significant way. Why do you think that is? And what needs to change in order to encourage foundations and impact investors to work more closely together?

Ted: We call our approach of combining debt and philanthropic dollars “integrated capital,” and we think it’s going to have a profound effect on impact investors, philanthropists and the social enterprises it serves.

Most non-profit social enterprises rely on a combination of earned revenue and gift money. There’s no reason why a single transaction can’t bridge these two forms of capital. With integrated capital we can leverage philanthropic grants or loan guarantees to push high-impact loan prospects from the “just barely declined” category into the “approved” category. In fact, even some for-profit social enterprises are eligible for this. Our loan to EcoScraps – a fast-growing, national, composting business was made possible by a foundation that shared in some of RSF’s risk.

Integrated capital is possible because RSF works with individuals and foundations that have overcome the prevailing view that how you invest your money and how you give are distinct activities. We’re also fortunate to work with an enlightened bunch of people who recognize that philanthropic support for social enterprises isn’t a crutch or a sign of a failed enterprise.

Our work at RSF is driven by a belief that money ought to serve the highest intentions of the human spirit. Conscientiously investing money, giving money and spending money can all further this goal.

Click here to read the full interview

Ted Levinson is Director of Lending at RSF Social Finance

Nell Edgington is President of Social Velocity, a management consulting firm leading nonprofits to greater social impact and financial sustainability. Social Velocity helps nonprofits grow their programs, bring more money in the door, and use resources more effectively.

Off-the-Grid Investing: Perspectives and Voices of a Transforming Financial System

September 6, 2013

Don-ShafferOriginally published in Green Money Journal

by Don Shaffer

When you are looking for the new or emergent, you usually have to look off-the-grid. In many ways as RSF Social Finance has grown, we too have had to go off-the-grid to develop our unique approach to finance.

In 1984, a school burned down in New Hampshire. RSF organized a group of investors to rebuild it. Since then, we have made over $275 million in direct loans to social enterprises. Our track record has been excellent, with just 2 percent in cumulative loan losses over 29 years, and a 100 percent repayment rate to investors.

The key: bringing investors and borrowers closer together. We have found that if the individual investors who are providing capital and the social entrepreneurs who are borrowing capital can be more visible to each other – if they can understand each others’ needs and intentions, and sustain a personal connection whenever possible – then risk decreases and fulfillment increases.

Participants in a transaction become participants in a relationship. We believe this is nothing less than the antidote to modern finance, and can be applied on a substantial scale. It is the opposite of high frequency trading.

Specifically, four years ago RSF adopted a new approach to loan pricing for our $100 million flagship senior-debt fund. Each quarter, we convene representatives from our staff, our investors, and our borrowers to decide what annualized return rate investors will receive the following quarter, and what interest rate borrowers will pay – a radical form of transparency.

We call it community-based pricing. The response from participants has been overwhelmingly positive – and our interest rate, referred to as RSF Prime, has been very stable. We are now off-the-grid of the global financial interest rate system and no longer directly affected by the vagaries of Wall Street.

But of course the vast majority of all 401(k) programs, pension funds, and endowments are tethered to Wall Street, so it is naïve to believe we are fully off-the-grid.

This circumstance leads to questions many of us in the social finance field think about:

  • What is it going to take for the number of socially and environmentally-focused investors to grow substantially?
  • Can it happen fast enough for those of us who acknowledge the urgency of climate change and natural resource depletion?
  • Are there enough sound investment opportunities for investors who want to go off-the-grid?
  • How will we address the perennial issues of risk, return, and liquidity when there are so few established intermediaries in which to place funds?
  • What are the long-term implications for those of us who anticipate needing funds for retirement and who want to embrace off-the-grid investing?

Click here to read the full story

Don Shaffer is President & CEO at RSF Social Finance

Financing Ecological Stewardship

July 17, 2013

This letter was originally published in the Summer 2013 RSF Quarterly

Don Shaffer - DefaultDear Friends,

This issue [of the RSF Quarterly] is focused on Ecological Stewardship, a topic of great urgency in the midst of what one could call “climate chaos.” We are working very hard to find and fund those social entrepreneurs who have demonstrated success in solving ecological challenges and are supporting a restorative economy. Their work is needed now more than ever, and we would like your help in identifying and directing such enterprises to us.

As Kenny Ausubel, co-founder of Bioneers, says in his sobering and hopeful guest essay, these are critical times for action by those who care for the earth and our place in it: “Everyone is called to be a leader, to be a healer. Inquire within.”  This last call speaks to the personal transformation each of us will need to engage in if we are to shift whole economic and environmental systems in time to keep the earth inhabitable. On a personal note, the annual Bioneers conferences in the 1990s were an important influence on my life and how I imagined transforming the world.

In the area of Ecological Stewardship, we would like to make more loans to help mitigate climate change, reverse the depletion of natural resources, and support biodiversity. We are particularly interested in green building, resource recovery, and the restoration and conservation of water and water systems. Current examples of RSF borrowers working in these areas include EcoScraps, New Leaf Paper, and RecycleForce (featured in this issue as one leader building the next economy).

In the abundant beauty of Northern California, it is hard to keep present the very real challenges facing farmers in drought conditions, or manufacturers who depend on depleted supply chains. We need your help in connecting with proven innovators who need loan capital to catalyze their capacity to solve these and other ecological problems we face.

We also continue to expand our portfolio in our focus areas of Food & Agriculture, and Education & the Arts. Our investors remain excited about the innovative work we are doing here, all of which is dependent upon a healthy environment and thriving earth systems. I am reminded of E.B. White’s famous quote: “I arise in the morning torn between a desire to improve the world and a desire to enjoy the world. This makes it hard to plan the day.” We have much to do to assure that our world remains a healthy place to be enjoyed by all.

All my best,

Don

Click here to download this issue of the RSF Quarterly

If you have ideas for social enterprises we should be working with, let us know!

Don Shaffer is President & CEO at RSF Social Finance.

7 Tips for Social Enterprises Looking to Raise Capital

July 2, 2013

Originally published on The Huffington Post

Don Shaffer - Defaultby Don Shaffer

Raising growth capital is a challenge for most businesses, but social enterprises face an extra hurdle–they have to show how they’re going to maximize their positive impact and demonstrate the qualities investors generally look for, including a strong management team, a unique approach to the market or problem, and growth potential.

What does it take to succeed? Based on my experience as an entrepreneur and now a social enterprise funder, these seven strategies–a mix of fundamental business building and savvy approaches to fundraising–will put your enterprise in the best position to get the capital it needs to realize its vision.

1. Build a stellar management team. Just as real estate is about location, location, location, raising money is about management team, management team, management team. The first question funders have is “Who is running the business and what do they bring to the party?” Do a ruthless assessment as early as possible. And if you have a gap, say so. Don’t force funders to hunt for weaknesses in your organization–it makes you look bad.

I recently met with a potential borrower that gave us no information about the management team other than their names. They have a couple million dollars in revenue and it’s a pretty complex business for the size–and they botched their financials to us. The business was a perfect fit for us, but it made us nervous that they not only didn’t seem to have a finance person, but also didn’t seem to understand that it was a problem.

2. Ditch the 70-page business plan binder. Funders don’t want to plow through that, and they won’t. Go with a one-pager that focuses on the top questions on the funder’s mind: Are you addressing a real problem? What’s unique about your business? Why you? Is this a growth business or a lifestyle business?

3. Have a practical plan as well as an inspiring vision. This applies to impact growth as well as financial growth. What’s your story about how you’re going to get from where you are now to the next level? Be realistic: if all your graphs zoom up to the right as sharply as possible, a serious funder will think you don’t have a prayer.

4. Seek the right kind of funding for your goals. Social entrepreneurs often buy into the culture of venture capital–they position their enterprise as a growth business, look for a miracle angel investor and start giving away equity. They’re not thinking about how the investor gets their money back. Consider at the beginning what you ultimately want to do. Are you planning to sell this business? Do you see this as a legacy business that you’re building to last?

A long-term, slow-growth plan won’t destroy your chances for funding; you’ll just need to look at different kinds of funding. At RSF Social Finance, for example, we don’t need borrowers to be a rocket ship, as long as they can steadily pay off debt.

5. Search out specialist funders. Dedicated social enterprise funders typically specialize in one or a few areas where they have a passionate commitment and deep knowledge. Look for funders that focus on your sweet spot–they’ll have a better understanding of the market opportunity, and won’t expect your business to compromise its mission in order to grow.

6. Ask for advice–sincerely. Brazenly pitching everyone you meet like a madman is likely to annoy people. Figure out what value you can bring to a discussion, and ask funders for advice. People love to give advice. But as in dating, don’t be desperate. If you’re only pretending to earnestly want advice because you’ve heard this tip, people will see through that.

7. Show that you can go the distance. A funder wants to understand not only why your business is needed and why you’re the one to build it, but also your level of stick-to-itiveness. You could be brawling with your partner and lots of things are going to be a disaster– the point is to tell the funder a couple of things that demonstrate how resilient and determined you are.

Don Shaffer is President & CEO at RSF Social Finance.

 

Good Morning, Beautiful Business

June 26, 2013

This essay was originally published in the Spring 2013 RSF Quarterly.

Judy Wicks Headshotby Judy Wicks

Not long after I opened the White Dog Cafe in Philadelphia in 1983, I hung a sign in my bedroom closet in my home above the shop – right where I would see it each morning. “Good morning, beautiful business,” it read, reminding me daily of just how beautiful business can be when we put our creativity, care, and energy into producing a product or service that addresses our community needs. I would often think of my own business, and how the farmers were already out in the fields harvesting fresh organic fruits and vegetables to bring into the restaurant that day. Business, I learned, is about relationships—relationships with everyone we buy from, sell to, and work with, and our relationship with Earth itself. My business was the way I expressed my love of life, and that’s what made it a thing of beauty.

My new memoir Good Morning, Beautiful Business: the Unexpected Journey of an Activist Entrepreneur and Local Economy Pioneer follows my evolution from a little girl who rebelled against playing with dolls and learning to cook, to a businesswoman who fully embraced her feminine energy to help build a new economy—one based on caring and sharing.  A key turning point in my evolution came when I moved from being a competitive businessperson to a cooperative one.

This story begins when I learned about the cruel and unhealthy treatment of pigs in the industrial system, where sows are crammed into small crates in windowless factories for their entire lives.  I was aghast that the pork I was serving at the White Dog must come from this barbaric system, as most of the pork in our country does.  The next day, I went into the kitchen and announced, “Take all the pork off the menu. Take off the bacon, the ham, and the pork chops. We cannot serve pork again until we find a humane source.” Our chef asked farmer Glenn Brendle, who was bringing in free-range chicken and eggs, if he knew a place that raised pigs in the traditional way.  It wasn’t long before he was bringing us two pigs a week.

Next I discovered the plight of the cow—herbivores confined in barns and crowded feedlots and fed subsidized grain. So we found a local source for grass-fed beef and dairy. After much work on our chef’s part to find humane sources for all our animal products, I looked at our menus and thought, At last! We’ve done it! All of our meat, poultry, eggs, milk, yogurt, and cheese come from farmers who treat animals kindly. No product comes from the industrial system of factory farms. And we were the only restaurant in town that could make this claim. So this was our market niche. Our competitive advantage!

Then my transformational moment came. I said to myself: Judy, if you really do care about the pigs and other farm animals that are treated so cruelly; the small farmers who are being driven out of business by factory farms; the environment that’s being polluted by the concentration of waste and unhealthy practices; the workers in these ghastly slaughterhouses and factories; the rural communities that are being destroyed; and the consumers who eat meat that’s full of antibiotics and hormones, then rather than keep this as your competitive advantage, you should share your knowledge with your competitors.

Up until this point I had always felt that my highest calling was to model socially responsible practices within my company, but it was no longer enough. After all, there is no such thing as one sustainable business, no matter how great our practices are, we can only be a part of a sustainable system. I had to move from a competitive mentality to one of cooperation in order to build that system—an entire local food system based on the values I upheld.

I was ready to roll. We needed to expand the small network of local farmers supplying the White Dog to a much larger network of farmers supplying as many restaurants and retail markets as possible. I asked farmer Glenn if he would like to expand his business.

“Yes,” he replied.
“What’s holding you back?”
“I need thirty thousand dollars to buy a refrigerated truck so I can deliver to more restaurants.” I loaned Glenn the thirty thousand dollars, and he bought the truck.

It takes a lot of capital to build a new economy. The type of low-interest loan I made to farmer Glenn for his refrigerated delivery truck is needed across the country. Yet most people, even those who want to bring social change and see the need for a more nurturing economy, invest their savings in the stock market where it perpetuates the old exploitive economy. My own experience in learning how to invest differently began in 1999 when I suddenly became a stockholder. After my mother passed away, I inherited a stock portfolio comprised of holdings first purchased by my grandfather and kept in the family for over fifty years. I wasn’t quite sure what to do with it all.

At first I hired a broker to trade my stock for what was considered “socially responsible investing,” a concept where stock is “screened” to eliminate companies involved with such things as weapons, tobacco, and animal testing. But when I looked at my new portfolio, I was shocked to see Wal-Mart, a company known to destroy local economies and underpay its workers. How could I support such a company—even if it had passed through the screens created by brokers for socially responsible investing?

That’s when I realized that I did not want to participate in the stock market at all. These are single-bottom-line companies, who by law are directed toward maximizing profit for stockholders above the interest of other people and our planet. Instead, I wanted to invest in companies that passed through a different screen, one that could filter out all companies who are not independently owned and triple bottom line.

So in 2000 I sold all my stock. That’s when I first became an investor in RSF Social Finance and a local investment vehicle called The Reinvestment Fund (TRF), where I knew my money would be used to build the economy I envisioned. To the surprise of my investment-savvy friends, over the long term my investments at RSF and TRF outperformed their stock market returns.

When I discovered that the wind turbines bringing renewable electricity to Philadelphia were capitalized by TRF, I coined the term living return. The return on my investment was not only paid in dollars, but by the benefit of living in a healthier community. I began receiving a living return, and with it the happiness and satisfaction of knowing where my money was—doing good right in my community.

Naturally, I also saw living returns from direct investment in my supply chain. My loan to farmer Glenn improved my menu and supported local sustainable farming.  I made another supply chain investment in my coffee source helping Zapatista revolutionaries in Mexico export organic fair trade coffee.  Previously, the growers were forced to sell to local representatives of giant coffee corporations for such a low price that it kept them in poverty. After learning of the violence and oppression waged against the indigenous people of Mexico, I organized a group of coffee importers and investors to assist the pro-democracy struggle by developing direct fair trade routes between an indigenous cooperative and two coffee importers in the U.S.  A fellow investor and I each made a $20,000 low interest loan to the two U.S. fair trade importers who then pre-paid the cooperative so they had enough money to buy the coffee from their members.  Once the coffee was shipped to the importer and sold to coffee roasters around the country, my loan was repaid. After the second year’s loan, the indigenous cooperative had enough capital to pay their members for their coffee without a pre-payment from the importers.  Again the pay-off for me for investing in my supply chain was not only financial but in having access to organic fair-trade coffee grown by people I knew and trusted.  And, importantly, it was also an experience that helped me envision a new global economy—one comprised of a network of local economies self-reliant in basic needs and connected by fair trade.

Building a new economy, I came to realize, rests on a simple quality: our capacity to care—followed by our willingness to do what is necessary to defend and nurture what it is that we truly care about. Change begins in the heart of the entrepreneur. And for that matter, the hearts of the investor and consumer as well. It’s the power of love and compassion that can bring transformative change and build an economy that is prosperous and strong, yet one where loving relationships matter more than profits.

Judy Wicks is an entrepreneur, author, speaker, and mentor working to build a more compassionate, environmentally sustainable, and locally based economy. In working toward this vision she founded Fair Food, the Sustainable Business Network of Greater Philadelphia, and co-founded the Business Alliance for Local Living Economies, BALLE.  As an entrepreneur, Judy is best known for Philadelphia’s landmark White Dog Cafe, which gained national recognition for community engagement, environmental stewardship, and responsible business practices. With Chelsea Green Publishing, Judy recently published Good Morning, Beautiful Business (from which this essay was adapted). For more information or to purchase a copy of the book, please visit www.judywicks.com.

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