Q&A with Amir Kirkwood: Growing the Social Investment Fund’s Impact
Feb 6 2024
Amir Kirkwood, a four-year member of the RSF Social Finance board of directors, recently took on a new role as board chair of the Social Investment Fund (SIF), which allows investors to directly support loans to for-profit and nonprofit enterprises working to solve complex social and environmental problems.
With more than two decades of social finance experience, Kirkwood is ideally positioned to guide the SIF through a new growth phase. He is president and CEO of VCC Social Enterprises, a Virginia community development financial institution. Previously, he served as Opportunity Finance Network’s chief investment and network officer, and before that was first vice president of business development at Amalgamated Bank, where he oversaw creation of the bank’s first Board-approved credit policy for mission lending.
Erika Williams, RSF’s vice president, integrated capital, spoke with Kirkwood about how his new role connects to the work he’s doing at VCC Social Enterprise, his growth goals for the SIF, finding new opportunities to advance RSF’s mission, and supporting staff as a creative thought partner.
Erika Williams: How did you come to be the SIF Board Chair at RSF?
Amir Kirkwood: I have been a member of the RSF board for four years now, and a member of its SIF committee for two. My transition to the role of SIF board chair was a natural one.
Because of my long work history in community finance and my familiarity with the field, I’ve known of RSF for many years and I’ve always admired the work that RSF does. After Jasper van Brakel took over as CEO in 2018, we connected through mutual acquaintances. He was impressed by the work I’d been doing and asked me to join the board and I accepted.
I helped Jasper through his transition as a new CEO as he defined and implemented his strategy for RSF’s future. I was also heavily involved with helping the SIF board improve investments that are made through that fund. The SIF has been working to improve its credit standards and other policies to make them more inclusive of those who have lacked access to mainstream finance. My efforts helped RSF determine how to balance good lending practices for its social investments while remaining committed to its impact goals. RSF doesn’t just exist to be a lender. It exists to create deep impact through lending, whether that’s with small businesses or climate-related financing.
EW: How do your roles as SIF board chair at RSF and CEO at VCC Social Enterprises connect?
AK: At VCC Social Enterprises, I drive place-based community lending that helps low-income and low-wealth communities gain access to capital. The model is a little different from—but complimentary to—RSF’s, which is more focused on sustainable lending activities. But the two organizations exist in the same ecosystem, and the big-picture goal is the same: providing financial services that benefit people and the planet.
RSF and VCC have some overlapping specialties, too, that have become the basis for a strong collaborative relationship. Recently, the two organizations worked together to support a Boston-based group called Sunwealth that convenes multiple investors to provide climate financing to small businesses, schools, and other organizations that want to install solar. I’m excited to see this growing convergence between work that serves under-resourced communities and work that’s built around sustainability.
EW: What is your vision for RSF’s SIF? How can we meet that goal?
AK: Primarily, I want to widen the breadth of the SIF’s activity. We’re already making headway in this area. The Sunwealth deal is a great example—this kind of partnership model creates the potential for collaboration on many projects over time, rather than investing in an organization as a one-off opportunity. RSF is also working with BlocPower, a New York fund manager that helps make investments in energy efficiency in real estate.
These partnerships will also help us reach my second goal for the SIF: to expand fundraising. The New York opportunity represents huge growth potential for RSF because it will enable us to build strong relationships with more mission-oriented investors who can look to our team to identify new projects in new markets.
RSF also has a strong, unique opportunity to raise money by taking advantage of federal commitments to community climate projects flowing from the Biden Administration’s Inflation Reduction Act, CHIPS Act, Greenhouse Gas Reduction Fund, and Infrastructure Act. Each of these includes provisions that support organizations like RSF and the SIF that decarbonize businesses by helping them invest in clean energy, carbon reduction, and more. This aligns perfectly with the type of work that the SIF has funded over the years.
In addition, I’d like to see RSF invest further in building out its policy and advocacy networks. The options are extensive. We need to determine which partnerships are the best fits for RSF and pursue those.
EW: Where do you see the most potential for success?
AK: The biggest slam dunk opportunity is taking advantage of federal green development funding that’s coming out of this new legislation. Our team is already doing the background research and learning needed to understand the opportunities that exist while we wait for funds to become available, so we will be well positioned to move forward when they do.
We can also build out RSF’s partner networks and our pipeline of project opportunities. I’ve seen investor interest in small businesses and climate-focused opportunities grow significantly over the last five years. But much of that interest seems to be from people who want to get in on the ground floor of a new venture rather than investing in established businesses, which is RSF’s sweet spot.
RSF is very practical in its approach and we have many years of experience in this growing field. Because of this long history, we deeply understand the different kinds of capital that established small businesses need to grow and succeed, and how to integrate new strategies around climate finance or sustainability. In this way, we are better positioned to create real impact than, say, a first-time fund doing the same work that doesn’t have our depth and history of place-based, small business-oriented investing. The opportunity for us lies in promoting these opportunities and helping investors understand why they are crucial to supporting communities, the planet, and investors’ bottom line.
EW: What are your personal goals for your tenure as SIF board chair?
AK: My primary goal is to support the team and help them feel free to pursue their goals. I want them to know that they have a stable strategic partner. By definition, a board chair role involves leading the team through approvals and compliance and governance-oriented processes. But I think staffs often find more value in working with someone they can think with in a way that gives them space to try to create impact in new and unique ways. My quantitative, tangible goal is to help the SIF raise and find new sources of capital.