Launching a Guide, Growing a Field

Ellen Remmer
Strategic Philanthropy
Wednesday, September 25, 2013

This is very cool.

At the Council on Foundations Community Foundations conference three years ago, GPS Capital Partners and TPI invited interested community foundations to come together for a conversation about what their foundations might do in response to the growing “buzz” in impact investing.  Our two organizations believed that community foundations could play an important leadership role as educators, intermediaries and aggregators of increased capital for social good, and in the process, prove themselves adaptable and relevant to a rapidly changing world and next generation of donors.  There was a fair amount of excitement in the room of 30 odd CEO’s, program, finance and donor service professionals, but also confusion and wariness about jumping onto what some feared might be the latest fad.

Some of the questions that discomfited the group – and surfaced in several other session rooms at subsequent COF conferences, as well as at individual foundations exploring the topic – were:  What is impact investing? How does it relate to traditional philanthropy? Do community foundations have the credibility to step into this field?  What are the risks?  What are examples of success?  What capabilities would we need to build or buy?   Will our donors be interested?  Will it attract new donors/partners?  And many more…

Well, thanks to the gracious and dogged persistence of COF’s network developer Laura Tomasko, the initiative of Greater Cincinnati Community Foundation CEO Kathy Merchant and her partner in crime Vermont Community Foundation CEO Stuart Comstock-Gay, and the able staff of Mission Investor Exchange, (and many others), a lot of these questions are addressed in the new Community Foundation Field Guide to Impact Investing.  The guide was launched at the annual Community Foundation Conference this week and is a web-based resource packed with exploration of (and sometimes answers to) the questions above and much more.  It also has a treasure trove of case studies from which to learn and offers strategic road maps, sample investment policies, and a living compendium of useful resources, including GPS Capital Partners/TPI’s most recent case study Northern New England Community Foundation Impact Investing: A Rural Community Foundation Case Study.

I was very flattered to be invited to contribute to the field guide and talk about why community foundations might venture into this area, and the different ways they might engage donors.  It is very cool to see a ‘product’ to support the growing momentum among community foundations in impact investing.  What is even cooler, however, is what I heard earlier this week at COF’s Conference for Community Foundations – suggestions throughout multiple sessions that the legitimacy of community foundations developing an impact investment strategy was already a done deal.  Five years post great recession crash, community foundations around the country are focusing on sustainable job creation and general economic development and impact investing offers a perfect tool.  Communities are surviving the reality of dramatically reduced government funding and more financing is needed at a scale that challenges community foundation budgets.  The next generation (and the retired generation) have made it clear that the bifurcation of the social sector from the business sector is increasingly irrelevant.

So what’s the response? Let’s grow the field of community foundations and impact investing.  Congratulations Council on Foundations for pushing and supporting the field.