In today’s Social Velocity interview, I’m talking with Ted Levinson. Ted is the Director of Lending at RSF Social Finance, a San Francisco-based financial services non-profit dedicated to transforming the way the world works with money. Levinson manages RSF’s flagship $75 million Social Investment Fund which provides debt capital to US and Canadian social enterprises.
You can read past interviews in the Social Innovation Interview Series here.
Nell: RSF Social Finance is really the leader in the social finance market, you’ve been doing this long before anyone started talking about a “social capital marketplace.” Given that long history, how do you view the current state of the social capital market? Are we where we need to be to funnel enough and the right kinds of capital to social change efforts? And if not, how do we get there?
Ted: RSF has a twenty-nine year operating history, but it’s still early days for the field of social finance. The industry is at the same stage of development as natural food stores were thirty years ago – we’re established, we’re growing, we’re doing good work, and yet we’re still considered a fringe movement. I believe we are on the cusp of mainstream acceptance which will mean a much broader audience of impact investors (especially young people and unaccredited investors) and far greater demand for social capital from the growing number of social enterprises that are just now becoming investment-ready.
There’s been a shift in society’s view of natural food stores – we’ve overcome our fear of the bulk bins and now all grocery stores look more like natural food stores. I expect the same thing to happen with our conventional financial institutions which are just now beginning to pay attention to social finance.
What the field really needs is to expand the financial products available to social enterprises and address some of the existing gaps. Frustrated social entrepreneurs may disagree, but I think the angel capital and large-scale venture capital spaces are meeting the needs of for-profits. Incubators, business plan competitions and seed funds are providing modest amounts of funding to emerging non-profits and for-profits. RSF and some of our friends including Nonprofit Finance Fund, Calvert and New Resource Bank are addressing the middle market market.
The big voids in social finance include:
- True “risk capital” for non-profit social enterprises. We need more foundations willing to place bets on high-potential organizations.
- Bigger finance players or (better yet) a more robust consortium of social finance organizations that can band together to meet the $5 million + needs of high growth social enterprises such as Evergreen Lodge, Playworks and other organizations that are reaching scale.
I believe the field will get there but we’re playing “catch-up” now and social entrepreneurs are an impatient bunch.
Nell: RSF does something pretty revolutionary in that you combine philanthropic giving with impact investing, whereas these two sides of the social capital marketplace have not yet really found a way to work together in any large scale or significant way. Why do you think that is? And what needs to change in order to encourage foundations and impact investors to work more closely together?
Ted: We call our approach of combining debt and philanthropic dollars “integrated capital,” and we think it’s going to have a profound effect on impact investors, philanthropists and the social enterprises it serves.
Most non-profit social enterprises rely on a combination of earned revenue and gift money. There’s no reason why a single transaction can’t bridge these two forms of capital. With integrated capital we can leverage philanthropic grants or loan guarantees to push high-impact loan prospects from the “just barely declined” category into the “approved” category. In fact, even some for-profit social enterprises are eligible for this. Our loan to EcoScraps – a fast-growing, national, composting business was made possible by a foundation that shared in some of RSF’s risk.
Integrated capital is possible because RSF works with individuals and foundations that have overcome the prevailing view that how you invest your money and how you give are distinct activities. We’re also fortunate to work with an enlightened bunch of people who recognize that philanthropic support for social enterprises isn’t a crutch or a sign of a failed enterprise.
Our work at RSF is driven by a belief that money ought to serve the highest intentions of the human spirit. Conscientiously investing money, giving money and spending money can all further this goal.
Nell: What do you make of the emerging social impact bond movement? Is this a social finance vehicle that you think will work?
Ted: I’m deeply hopeful and deeply skeptical of the future of social impact bonds. I’m hopeful because our government is notoriously risk-adverse and slow to adopt new ways of improving education, reducing recidivism, or curbing our runaway health care costs. I think spending money on early interventions could go a long ways towards improving these fields societal challenges, but paying now to save in the future is at loggerheads with the short-term view which prevails in politics. Social impact bonds are a clever way to push the risk on to investors who are willing to take a longer view for the potential of a big upside.
I’m also a fan because social impact bonds are an alternative to the financial engineering which brought us collateralized debt obligations. They demonstrate that Wall Street doesn’t have a monopoly on financial innovation.
That being said, I’m skeptical that this market can ever reach a stage where transactions costs can drop enough to make it economically viable. Bringing together the multiple parties that are required for such a transaction (the government, the investor, the non-profit, a monitoring entity, a social finance organization, an attorney and possibly a foundation) just seems unaffordable to me.
Nell: What sets the nonprofits and social enterprises you invest in apart? What characteristics do you look for in the investments you make?
Ted: All of our borrowers fall into one or more of three focus areas – sustainable food systems, the environment and education & the arts. These borrowers all have capable, committed management who recognize that financial sustainability is a prerequisite for lasting change. Our best borrowers have strong communities supporting them whether it is donors, customers or suppliers.
Evaluating these stakeholders is a key component of our underwriting process at RSF.
Our experience demonstrates that performance improves when social enterprises engage all of their stakeholders. RSF’s long-standing support of fair trade is an example of this commitment. We also regularly expect borrowers to solicit their community members to join RSF’s investor community as a precondition to approval. We take community seriously at RSF!
Our borrowers are all addressing major social or environmental problems such as a lack of adequate housing for developmentally disabled adults (Foundation for the Challenged), inefficiencies in the wind industry (FrontierPro) and poverty and environmental degradation from rice farming (Lotus Foods.) As social enterprises, they’re primary activities are DIRECTLY making the world a better place. We believe our borrowers have the potential to scale their organizations and make a real dent in these problems, or become a model for others to do the same.
For example, we were one of the first lenders to Revolution Foods when they were operating out of a defunct fast food restaurant in Alameda, CA. Today they deliver over 200,000 healthy meals a day to public school children.
Similarly, we think DC Central Kitchen’s model of combining culinary training for adults with barriers to employment with a robust meals business (they deliver 5,000 meals a day to schools and homeless shelters) is a winning approach that can be replicated throughout the country.
Nell: Some have argued that nonprofit leaders lack a level of sophistication when it comes to financial strategy and use of financial tools. Obviously you find nonprofits and social enterprises that are able to effectively employ sophisticated financial vehicles, so how do you respond to that argument?
Ted: Rather than argue I prefer to let the results of our borrowers speak for themselves. DePaul Industries, for example, is a $30 million non-profit that employs over a thousand disabled Oregonians. The Portland Business Journal ranked them one of the most admired companies in the state and they did this all with 98% earned revenue. Network for Good processes over $150 million of online donations every year while Digital Divide Data has a decade of year over year revenue growth in the field of impact outsourcing.
I see no lack of financial sophistication in the non-profit sector. I do, however, see a lack of risk-taking, which can sometimes be misinterpreted as unsophistication when compared with the for-profit world. It’s a shame this mentality is so pervasive because of the importance and urgency of the work that so many non-profits do. Many icons of industry have biographies filled with risky expansion, leverage, false starts and failures. We need to de-stigmatize failure in the non-profit sector and adopt that same boldness which has led to so many of the biggest successes in the commercial world.