Don Shaffer

A Conversation with RSF Social Finance CEO Don Shaffer

Don has served as President & CEO of RSF Social Finance since 2007. He has been a social entrepreneur for many years, growing an education business, a software company, and a sporting goods manufacturer, in addition to the nonprofit Business Alliance for Local Living Economies. Don and the team at RSF are constantly asking the question, “How can we model financial transactions that are direct, transparent, personal, and based on long-term relationships?” Under Don’s leadership, RSF’s total assets have grown to over $160 million.

Woody Tasch: If I told you that I think of you as the least fiduciary fiduciary I know, would you consider this a compliment or an insult?

Shaffer: I like that designation. For one thing, at RSF we don’t have any institutional investors. All investors and donors are individuals or families. We know each of them quite well. That makes an extraordinary difference in terms of how we show up. We know their intentions, and so we can represent them well. We’re in actual relationship with them. We give agency to their desire to question assumptions, to put money to work as directly as possible. We try to be a thin layer of intermediation that helps people deeply align their money with their core values. We are not conventional investment advisors who have all sorts of institutional constraints and who are typically not interested in questioning the core assumptions of modern portfolio theory.

The core assumptions of modern portfolio theory?

Actually, I sometimes avoid the phrase “modern portfolio theory.” Financial jargon is part of the problem. People get buried in a blizzard of financial terms that obfuscates—makes opaque—what is going on, furthers the paradigm of, “We’ll just take care of you. Here are the reports—full of jargon and charts and analytics that are virtually meaningless to you.”

You’re making me think of a recent impact investing report from a major investment bank. It covers billions of dollars of impact investing, has all manner of survey data from institutional investors about their social and environmental concerns, about the allocation of capital and return objectives and metrics, but does not mention a single individual transaction. It is all about large, aggregated pools of capital, sliced and diced analytically in various ways. But you can’t tell where the money is going in terms of specific investments.

That’s why at RSF we do not think of trying to be a leader in the impact-investment industry. The impact-investing industry is mimicking the structure and presentation of institutional finance—the culture of Wall Street. So, what we do, to counter this, is to bring investors and social enterprises as close together as possible. When this is accomplished, investors and entrepreneurs can experience a visceral sense of how we are all connected. When you experience where your money is going and, as an entrepreneur, where your money is coming from, we find that, pretty much every time, it nurtures a spirit of generosity.

That reminds me of the words of a woman from Ashland, Oregon who said, a few years ago, after a half-day public Slow Money discussion, “The innate value of this kind of investing is so obvious to me that I don’t care how much money I make.” Innate value—a truly beautiful way of expressing it, since the word innate has connotations of the natural and the intuitive. This is a way of getting at the visceral sense of connection that you are talking about. It happens when people are in direct relationship to one another and to the places and the soil where they live. And, being the devotee of Wendell Berry that I know you to be, this is where we should throw in the word affection.

Yes, affection. There isn’t much of it when the workout team of a bank gets down to business, getting whatever financial value they can out of a troubled loan. RSF doesn’t have a workout team. We have a work-through team. We can be more patient, more flexible, and can work toward an effective resolution in situations where commercial banks just cannot. Is this generosity? Or affection? Is it simply a matter of working at a smaller, more-human scale? These are all great ways to think about what we are doing.

Common Market

A mission-driven distributor of local foods to the Mid-Atlantic region, Common Market has grown rapidly through integrated capital financing from RSF. Featured are cofounders Haile Johnston and Tatiana Garcia-Granados.

We’re finding the same to be true in the Slow Money investment club in Boulder. There is strong consensus among our few dozen members that, although we don’t use the words “affection” or “generosity,” we are using that spirit to evaluate our success. Success for this group is not a particular rate of financial return. It is the enhanced impact on the local food system of the small food enterprises to whom we have made loans. This is our primary concern. I’ve started using the term “return agnostic” to describe this mentality. As we become more grounded in terms of our shared mission, and as relationships strengthen, we become more agnostic about the arithmetic.

If you want to talk about arithmetic, let’s talk about LIBOR—the London Interbank Offered Rate. Trillions of dollars a day globally are pegged to LIBOR, a rate which has been shown many times to be rigged for the benefit of the big banks. At RSF, we don’t use LIBOR. LIBOR is part of the black box of the banking system. No one knows where the money in a big bank goes. It could go to hedge funds. It could go toward community investments. You don’t really know.

So, we use Community Pricing Meetings as part of an entirely different approach. We bring together the investors in our $100-million loan fund, the entrepreneurs who are our borrowers, and RSF staff, and we talk about each others’ needs. Some investors focus on reducing risk. Some want only a little bit of financial return. Some care only about the depth and potency of social and environmental impact and want to support the modeling being done by social enterprises. You’d think the entrepreneurs would care about nothing more than paying as little as possible. Yet at every meeting, some of the investors are inspired to say to some of the entrepreneurs, “I’d be willing to take less, if it will help you be more successful.” Then some of the entrepreneurs say, “We’d be willing to pay a little more if it will enable you to help other entrepreneurs.” This experience of interdependence changes the arithmetic.

Perla Ni, who used to be editor of the Stanford Social Innovation Review, named that tune in three words: “Numbers suppress empathy.”

There’s a lot of truth to that. If you are so busy doing the numbers, you don’t have time for empathy. I’m constantly surprised by how often I get asked, “Am I allowed to have a portion of my assets invested in deep social and environmental assets and either just get my money back or have a small financial return?” It’s fascinating that so many people ask if this is “allowed.” And the frequency of this question, whether from folks of significant means or not, is increasing dramatically—it’s ten times what it was five years ago.

We’re all trying to get permission from the “Big Fiduciary in the Sky.”

This is why I like your mantra about “bringing our money back down to earth.” It’s about giving ourselves permission. Investing in food and farming brings a lot of this to the forefront.

Can you share an example of one of your recent investments in food?

A recent example is a multipronged loan/investment/grant to Veritable Vegetable, the oldest local organic distributor in northern California. They ran out of warehouse space and needed a new building, but San Francisco real estate is extremely challenging. We split the mortgage loan on the new building with New Resource Bank—a $3.2 million loan, split 50/50. Then we financed leaseholder improvements for them with $800,000 of subordinated debt, half of which came from a philanthropic fund at RSF and half from five RSF investors who participated alongside the fund.

On top of that, they got a grant from the USDA, but needed a lead gift to catalyze this. RSF put in $30,000; then USDA came in with an $100,000 grant. So, that’s an example of what we are doing in the food sector. We’re taking an integrated capital approach, working to break down the compartmentalization of transactions.

The Veritable Vegetable team

The Veritable Vegetable team

Say more about what you mean by “integrated capital.”

Integrated capital is the coordinated use of different kinds of financial capital and nonfinancial resources to support an enterprise that’s working to solve complex social and environmental problems. We’re talking about direct investments, loans, grants, etc. What we find constantly is that this is very nuanced work—to figure out how to provide the right combination of funding at the right time. Often the entrepreneurs need quite a bit of counsel. It’s a deep listening process.
So we’re launching an Integrated Capital Academy in the fall of 2017 to train the next generation of integrated capital specialists. Basically, there is a big need right now for hundreds of finance professionals who have what I call “the whole enchilada”: technical knowledge of direct investing/lending/giving, a fundamental disposition for listening, a spirit of service, and the impulse to go beyond “impact” transactions to relationships.

Kate Danaher, who is our lead manager for integrated-capital deployment in food and agriculture, has it. Esther Park, who led our lending team for years, has it. Esther is CEO of Cienega Capital now, one of the most innovative family offices in our field. We want to create a peer-learning experience for about 20 people initially. I can’t wait to see how it goes!

It’s interesting that you are introducing a new curriculum and calling it integrated capital, because Slow Money is introducing something new as well. We’re calling ours a Decelerator. You know: venture capital has accelerators and pitch fests; nurture capital needs decelerators and harvest fests. We’ve done all kinds of meetings around the country and the Decelerator is a next iteration. We’re hosting our first one in October in Colorado. The challenge in all of this is balancing the need to develop a new kind of financial intermediation—I did say you were the least fiduciary fiduciary I know, didn’t I?—that gets more money flowing from the wealthy and also empowers and engages small investors. I love the prospect of many more Esther’s working with many more Cienega Capitals. And I love the idea of hundreds of thousands of small investors and crowd- funders connecting to do lots of small investments through a network of CSA-like local investment initiatives.

Sounds like a plan.

2 replies
  1. Kelly Guncheon
    Kelly Guncheon says:

    Are you considering starting a Community Investment Portal that is now legal in Minnesota? Non-qualified investors can now invest in local businesses and start-ups, and the businesses in turn can accept investment money up to I believe $2 million. The investors are true investors in that they own a piece of the project and receive returns from the business’s success.

    Reply

Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *