Lisa Green Hall, fellow and fair finance lead at The Beeck Center for Social Impact & Innovation at Georgetown University.
How do you define philanthropy?
I define philanthropy in the spiritual sense as using one’s time, talent, and treasure to contribute to the common good.
There are different ways to be philanthropic and people can have different philanthropic goals. First, charity is about giving our time, talent, and treasure to directly benefit the welfare of another person. This includes religious giving or giving to food banks and homeless shelters. Second, philanthropy can be used to influence systems. This type of philanthropy often involves pursuing a specific theory of change to create a desired social change or outcome. A third type of philanthropy includes investing to benefit communities and individuals with a goal of achieving a financial return alongside a social return. This approach to investing is called impact investing.
Tell us a little more about impact investing. What are some specific examples of this type of philanthropy and what are some bright spots you’re seeing in this area?
Long-term affordable housing is a classic example of impact investing. Imagine a family who needs safe and affordable housing but can’t pay market rent. Then, imagine a developer who has to pay high acquisition and construction costs to build in that market. Through impact investing, our builder can receive concessionary and/or flexible financing that makes it possible to build an affordable unit while still earning a return. The rent paid by the renter is then used to pay back the investment to the investor over time.
How do we encourage more people to become impact investors if it means accepting a below market rate return?
To be clear, some impact investments deliver market-rate returns; and some don’t.
People get excited about impact investing because they want to align their money with their values. In the same way that many of us buy more products and services that are responsibly sourced and environmentally-friendly, many people want their investments to also deliver social good.
We need to educate investors and consumers and make sure that they have the tools they need to invest for impact and for a return.
There are several bright spots in impact investing.
First, research from the Global Impact Investing Network (GIIN) shows that the impact investing market has grown to over $500 billion. Impact investing is a growing movement. It is no longer a niche idea. Mainstream financial firms like Bain & Company, Goldman Sachs, and Blackrock have created impact investment products. Increasingly, we’re also seeing exchange-traded funds (ETFs) support racial justice and benefit organizations. An example is the NAACP and the YWCA options launched recently by Impact Shares.
As the former CEO of Calvert Impact Capital, formerly Calvert Foundation, a pioneer in impact investing, I saw the power of individual or retail impact investing. Calvert Impact Capital offers one of the oldest and longest-standing retail products in the market dedicated to empowering communities, known as the Calvert Community Investment Note. Throughout the history of the firm, including the global financial crisis, we never lost a single penny of any investor’s capital. We also launched one of the first social impact offerings to benefit women’s organizations called Women Investing in Women (WIN-WIN) initiative. This effort is now focused on helping women in emerging markets gain access to clean energy so that they can spend less time collecting firewood and more time in school. And, there is now an entire field dedicated to gender lens investing.
We need to lead with the causes and issues that people care about and help them understand how they can meet their philanthropic goals and their investment goals through impact investing.
Who are your philanthropic sheroes?
This may sound odd as an example of a philanthropic shero, but Anna Deavere Smith stands out for me. What she gives to her audiences through her art makes people think critically about key social issues. She teaches us about race, justice, power, and influence. If that’s not a gift to humanity, I don’t know what is.
I love that you said that. We have been talking about “testimony” or using your voice as a way to express your love of humanity as a form of philanthropy. That is what Deavere Smith does.
Yes, she makes us think about our shared values and humanity.
The author and poet and new president of the Andrew Mellon Foundation, Elizabeth Alexander, is another one of my philanthropic sheroes. I just finished her memoir, The Light of the World, and can see how her work as an artist is transferable to running a foundation that is focused on supporting and elevating the role of the humanities in our society. It is a beautiful story about love and grief following the sudden death of her husband, which deeply resonated with me, as a recent widow myself.
Carol Thompson-Cole, president and CEO of Venture Philanthropy Partners (VPP) is another woman I admire. She has been the quiet power behind VPP for more than a decade. She is doing amazing philanthropic work to benefit communities throughout the District of Columbia that doesn’t constantly get heralded in the press. Her results-based, strategic work is an example of the powerful but often quiet philanthropy that many women lead from behind the scenes.
What advice would you give to other Black women who are interested in impact investing?
Small steps can lead to big steps. Notice what excites you and what you feel passionate about and then act on your intention. For example, I’ve been very disturbed by the treatment of children who are being separated from their parents at our border with Mexico. So I made a charitable donation to Raices, an organization that is providing legal services to migrants to help parents reconnect with their children.
If we all pay attention to our passion and where we want to move the needle, it adds up.
I also advise women to set aside not just a portion of their treasure, but also their time and talent. You can serve on a nonprofit board or volunteer. I serve on the board of Habitat for Humanity International. It’s been a great opportunity to volunteer and help build community. In addition, two of my girlfriends and I were recently discussing what we can do individually to make a difference for issues that matter to us, and we landed on voter registration. We committed to helping register voters locally, through existing bi-partisan organizations like the League of Women Voters.
Finally, we all need to ask this question of our financial advisors, “what products are available to invest my money in a way that I can feel good about?” Increasingly, investment firms have products that are screened from an ESG (Environmental, Social, and Governance) standpoint. And deeper impact is possible through investment in retail offerings like the Calvert Community Investment Note, RSF’s Social Investment Fund Note, and the CNote.
Is there anything else you want to share with us?
It’s not an either/or proposition. You can do philanthropy and impact investing.
Some things that are very beneficial to society will never generate a profit. For example, I think most people would agree that poetry is valuable. But it’s hard to monetize. That’s where philanthropy comes in. Philanthropy is very relevant to the arts. We should make charitable gifts to support these issues, services, and causes. But when there is a long-term revenue stream associated with a social benefit that requires substantial up-front investment capital, then there may be a perfect opportunity for impact investing.
Another benefit of impact investing is that you must conduct research and due diligence to deeply understand the problem you aim to solve. And investors monitor their investments over time. Increasingly investors are also seeking to track the impact of their investments over time. The rigor of serving a paying market forces efficiencies which aren’t always realized in a purely philanthropic marketplace.
As a fellow at Georgetown University’s Beeck Center for Social Impact and Innovation, I’ve enjoyed the opportunity to reflect, research and write about some of these issues. We are training leaders in social impact and incubating new ideas. I’m particularly excited about a new initiative, called Fair Finance which is focused on how systems and policies can lead to shared economic prosperity. Look for it this fall.
I also have the privilege of serving as an independent member of the investment committee for the Nathan Cummings Foundation, a multi-generational family foundation with assets of more than $450 million at YE 2017. Institutions, just like individuals, are increasingly aligning their money and their values. U.S. foundations are legally required to spend 5 percent of their assets annually to support their missions through grantmaking. I’m proud to be involved in the work of Nathan Cummings Foundation which has pledged to align 100 percent of its endowment with its mission of pursuing justice for people and the planet.
Do Black women do philanthropy differently?
Women in general and perhaps Black women more are used to balancing multiple priorities and agendas. We are adept at being philanthropists and investors and businesswomen. We can embrace ambiguity and complexity. We give and invest our money. Women often see the opportunity in helping people and making a difference.
Also, as Arlan Hamilton, founder and managing partner at venture capital firm Backstage Capital, says, women-led business and communities of color are “often overlooked and underestimated.” We see potential where others may only see and perceive risk. We know from our own lived experience that talent is distributed evenly but opportunity is not. And when we are fortunate to have resources to spare, we give generously.
To meet other amazing Black women to watch in philanthropy, read The Black Woman’s Guide to Philanthropy!