Mission Investing for Community Foundations

Wednesday, March 6, 2013 - 4:03 pm
Stuart Comstock-Gay

I first started working in the community foundation field more than 15 years ago. It goes without saying that I’m a big fan. I believe in this democratic model of philanthropy where the collective power of many creates powerful change. I’m also a fan because most community foundations understand that our work is constantly changing and adjusting to new needs. We cannot stand still. Indeed, the model of community foundation 15 years ago was vastly different than the one I see across the country now. The difference is the greater clarity about our leadership, and about our place-based expertise and connection. Community Foundation Week makes me reflect on that leadership.

One way that leadership is increasingly playing out is through mission investments. It’s true that philanthropy of all sorts exists in this world, but I think community foundations can have a particularly powerful niche. At the Vermont Community Foundation, the board first set aside 5 percent of our endowment for in-state investments more than a decade ago. Those investments have ranged from loan funds supporting day care centers, nonprofits, housing organizations and other CDFIs, to a small Vermont-based venture capital firm. The board recognized then—as it does now—that our leadership is about how we deploy all of our resources as well as about how those resources show a commitment to Vermont. The board knew that it might be giving up some small portion of financial return in favor of a larger community impact. But even that is not always the case. In 2008, while the rest of our portfolio suffered during the downturn, our Vermont pool retained a small positive return.

When we started we were largely alone among community foundations, but that too has changed. Today, colleagues across the country—in Cincinnati, Silicon Valley, and elsewhere—have set aside funds, developed projects, and worked with donors to create their own mission investments. Here in Vermont, we continue to refine our approach. Can we be even more creative and effective? Now that a community of mission investors is developing, what can we learn from others? Can we partner with fellow community foundations on collective issues? It’s a next frontier of community leadership, and we look forward to it.

Community foundations interested in learning more are invited to join a December 4 webinar, where the Mission Investors Exchange will discuss how to prepare for mission investments and share research done by the Harvard Kennedy School, Initiative for Responsible Investing, and Living Cities.

Stuart Comstock-Gay is president and CEO of the Vermont Community Foundation.

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