Community Investing: Tools for These Times
Above: Donna Katzin, founder of Shared Interest with Ruben Mbuyisa of Mutha Farms – beneficiary of a Shared Interest guarantee. Photo courtesy of Shared Interest
Today, in our current political and social environment, the demand to invest in undercapitalized Black and Brown communities resonates with particular urgency – and for good reasons. In the U.S. alone, white families have accumulated seven times more wealth than Black families and five times more than Latinx families, and during the pandemic twice as many Black-owned as white-owned businesses have been forced to close.1
Investing in low-income communities struggling at the margins of the mainstream economy has been a pillar of socially responsible investing for more than half a century – the movement has now broadened to include “sustainable” and “impact investing.” While faith-based and other investors have also launched corporate dialogues and screened their investments to end slavery, advance civil rights, stop the Vietnam War, abolish apartheid and combat climate change – many have proactively invested in undercapitalized and disempowered communities.
Just as this movement gathered momentum on the heels of the Civil Rights and anti-apartheid movements, it is particularly relevant now to strengthen Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC) communities and to help reverse the concentration of wealth and power in fewer and fewer hands. This agenda prioritizes transforming an economy built on the original sins of the suppression of Native people, enslavement of Blacks and extractive exploitation of the earth.
In our globalizing world, where challenges of inequality, racial oppression, climate change and pandemics know no borders and impact each other, SRI has provided a mechanism for redirecting capital toward global solutions. In this context, a number of community investing institutions work internationally. These include Root Capital, which lends directly to rural enterprises and small-scale farmers in Sub-Saharan Africa, Latin America and Southeast Asia; Working Capital for Community Needs, which extends credit to microfinance institutions in Latin America; MicroCredit Enterprises, which provides finance for overseas microfinance institutions and small businesses; and Shared Interest, which facilitates Black communities’ access to commercial capital in Southern Africa (see below).
Community investing in the U.S. is growing rapidly and steadily. Assets invested in community investing institutions – totaling $226 billion in 2020 – nearly doubled between 2014 and 2016, rose by more than 50 percent during the following two years, and increased by 44 percent between 2018 and 2020, reports USSIF.2
Fueling Transformational Change
Community investing not only redirects resources to enterprises, homes and facilities in communities marginalized by racial, gender and economic exclusion. At the same time – place-based strategies can further challenge an inequitable status quo by empowering vulnerable communities, linking them to broader social movements, and impacting institutions that keep their residents poor and powerless.
Here are some important examples:
Grassroots Community-Engaged Investment: The Boston Ujima Project.
A recent paper by Transform Finance examines grassroots community engaged investment institutions (GCEIs), such as the Boston Ujima Project, which combine BIPOC community investment and community organizing strategies to build wealth and power.
Ujima (whose name is Swahili for collective work and responsibility) has worked in Black communities in Boston since 2017 to provide finance to local residents, using grassroots structures including neighborhood assemblies to ground the organization’s policies, practices and products in members’ decisions. It further facilitates collaborations and advocacy to advance their goals and broad economic justice agenda. Ujima’s United Business Alliance also translates these priorities into action by providing a network of community-oriented companies committed to sharing ownership and wealth, creating good jobs and meeting local needs in keeping with community priorities.
Movement-Building: The Oweesta Fund
A second strategy connects community development financial institutions (CDFIs) serving excluded and exploited populations to larger social movements. For example, the Oweesta Fund (which grew out of the First Nations Development Institute) provides loan products and grants, as well as technical, policy and advocacy support to the 40-year old Native Community Development Financial Institution movement and its members. It aims to help build “the economic independence and strengthen sovereignty for all Native communities.” With its $16 million loan portfolio and support services, Oweesta fortifies the connective tissue between CDFIs deeply rooted in Native communities and amplifies and leverages the voice and power of these institutions and their communities to advance their shared priorities and rights.
Changing Institutions: Shared Interest
Launched in 1994, after the fall of apartheid, to enable South Africa’s Black majority to make a reality of its hard-won rights, Shared Interest utilizes loan guarantees to catalyze institutional change. By sharing risk with Southern African commercial lenders and providing technical support, it has helped move 22 banks and other financial institutions to extend credit for productive purposes to Black communities and clients they would have otherwise considered “unbankable.” The organization has benefited more than 2.3 million entrepreneurs, farmers, home-owners and cooperatives since inception. The ultimate goal is for Black borrowers to secure credit from mainstream financial institutions that have changed their business practices to include them.
Of course, there are challenges. Not the least of these is scaling strategies that are deeply rooted in particular communities, and not easily replicable. Moreover, the community investing field has not yet developed an efficient and sustainable mechanism for connecting these “transformative” organizations to each other or to the retail investment market, despite several valiant and innovative attempts and technology-enabled platforms. This remains a focus for the future. If we are serious about challenging racial and economic oppression and empowering marginalized communities, we urgently need to educate investors about which kinds of community investments produce which outcomes and impact. Examples include Calvert Impact Capital’s resource for impact-driven faith-based investors.
We must also support:
- Emerging GCEIs in frontline communities;
- Intermediaries that link and support such grassroots wealth- and power-building initiatives; and
- Organizations that engage in institutional change.
Working together, today’s social change movements and investors have the potential to harness what we have learned about community investing and organizing since the 1960’s to build the resources, capacity and power of communities struggling for social, racial, economic and environmental justice.
These times require no less.
Article by Donna Katzin, the founding executive director of Shared Interest, which she led for 26 years to help move international investors from disinvestment from apartheid to reinvestment in a democratic new South Africa. Previously she directed the South Africa and International Justice Programs for the Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility. Prior to that she created the Human Rights Department and served as an organizer for District 65 UAW in New Jersey. She has been honored by the South African – American Organization, the North Star Fund, the South African Embassy, Face2face Africa, and the Conference on Sustainable, Responsible, Impact Investing.
Donna has worked as a community organizer in housing, bilingual education, and the movements to oppose US intervention in Central America and the Caribbean and apartheid in South Africa. She co-leads Tipitapa Partners, a US non-profit that works with marginalized women and youth in Nicaragua to sustain their communities and uphold their rights, and is a board member of Community Change and the Fund for Community Change in the US.