By Judy Wicks
Judy Wicks will speak at Slow Money’s National Gathering April 29–30 in Boulder, Colo. Wicks is founder of the White Dog Cafe, co-founder of Business Alliance for Local Living Economies (BALLE), and author of “Good Morning, Beautiful Business: The Unexpected Journey of an Activist Entrepreneur and Local Economy Pioneer” (Chelsea Green, 2013), from which this is excerpted and reprinted here with permission from the publisher. The book is available in hardcover and paperback.
It takes a lot of capital to build a new economy. The type of low-interest loan I made to farmer Glenn Brendle for his refrigerated delivery truck is needed across the country. Yet most people, even those who want to bring social change and see the need for a more nurturing economy, invest their savings in the stock market, where it perpetuates the old exploitive economy.
My own experience in learning how to invest differently began in 1999 when I suddenly became a stockholder. After my mother passed away, I inherited a stock portfolio composed of holdings first purchased by my grandfather and kept in the family for over 50 years. I wasn’t quite sure what to do with the stock. At first I hired a broker to trade my stock for what was considered “socially responsible investing,” a concept where stock is “screened” to eliminate companies involved with such things as weapons, tobacco and animal testing. But when I looked at my new portfolio, I was shocked to see Wal-Mart! I could not have stock in Wal-Mart, a company known to destroy local economies and underpay its workers—and it sold products produced in sweatshops and factory farms to boot. How could I support such a company, even if it had passed through the screens created by brokers for socially responsible investing?
That’s when I realized that I did not want to participate in the stock market at all. These are single-bottom-line companies, who by law are directed toward maximizing profit for stockholders above the interest of other people and our planet. I wanted to invest in companies that were independent of the stock market and had passed through a different screen, one that can filter out all companies who are not independent, locally owned, and triple bottom line.
So in 2000 I sold all my stock and did something that my broker and all my friends in the socially responsible investment field advised against: I put most of my eggs in one basket—my local economy. My friend and mentor Hal Taussig told me about a local investment vehicle called The Reinvestment Fund (TRF), and there I invested my money to be put to work as community capital for such local needs as wind energy production, small business loans, neighborhood revitalization and affordable housing. To the surprise of my friends, except for Hal, over a 10-year period my local investments at TRF outperformed their stock market returns.
When I discovered that the wind turbines bringing renewable electricity to Philadelphia were capitalized by TRF, I coined the term living return. The return on my investment was not only paid in dollars, but in the benefit of living in a healthier community. I began receiving a living return, and with it the happiness and satisfaction of knowing where my money is—doing good right in my own community.
As was typical, I said to myself, My customers have got to hear this, and scheduled a table talk on local investment at the White Dog with Jeremy Nowak, president of TRF. Why not inspire more Philadelphians to bring their money home—disinvesting in the stock market where we often don’t know what effects our investments have on other people, animals and the environment, and investing instead in our own economy where we have knowledge and a personal stake? That would increase the living return for our whole community.
I also looked into providing an option for our employer-matched IRA at the White Dog so employees could choose to invest their retirement locally. Though I found no options for IRAs to go directly to our local community, we were able to provide an option to invest in the Calvert Community Fund, where money is invested in community development around the country. But clearly we need local financial institutions in every community to set up IRA programs through which citizens can direct their retirement savings toward building their own local economy and community rather than supporting the stock market. Thinking of all that money stuck in pension funds invested in the stock market, when we have such need for local investment in our communities, drives us localists crazy.
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Capital for building local economies was central to another entrepreneur who connected to BALLE in a life-changing way—change not only for him, but also for BALLE and for the world of community capital.
Don Shaffer began his career as a partner in a skateboard design and manufacturing company, Comet Skateboards, where he and his team developed an ecofriendly resin for gluing their skateboards together. Rather than keep the formula as its market niche, Comet shared it with competitors. Protecting the environment meant more to Don than the competitive advantage of a proprietary formula.
In 2004, Don, who was then in his early 30s, read an article in Orion magazine about my work to build local living economies, including the story of sharing my farm sources with my competitors. Don recognized a kindred spirit, and soon he was on a plane flying from San Francisco to Philadelphia to attend the second annual BALLE business conference in 2004. Through conversations at the conference and the after-hours party in my home above the White Dog, Don found like-minded entrepreneurs who shared his values of cooperation and compassion, as well as fun. When Michelle and Derek stepped down from their leadership roles at BALLE that year to focus on growing their local network as well as their family, Don became BALLE’s executive director.
Tall and fair, Don has such a humble, gentle and giving nature that I first described him as angelic (until he told me stories of his not-so-distant past as a rebellious youth). Don recognizes that the can-do focused energy of the entrepreneur is at the core of building a new economy, and to be successful, entrepreneurs need capital. So Don made capital for local economies a strong part of BALLE’s agenda—beginning with many speakers and sessions on community capital at our national conferences. After three years of nurturing and building BALLE, Don left the position to pursue his dream of transforming the way the world works with money as the president and CEO of RSF Social Finance, which offers investments, loans and gifts to enterprises with triple-bottom-line values that are building the new economy.
RSF stands for the Rudolf Steiner Foundation and is inspired by the work of Rudolf Steiner, who believed that money has a deeply spiritual dimension and is a form of energy that connects one person to another and strengthens the bonds of community. Steiner’s work keeps popping up in my life. It was Steiner who invented biodynamic farming (sustainable agriculture beyond organics), which is practiced at Hawthorne Valley Farm, the dairy farm I so admire for keeping calves with their mothers. The Hawthorne Valley community also has a Waldorf school, which practices Waldorf education (sometimes called Steiner education), an educational system with an interdisciplinary philosophy founded by Steiner in 1919. There are thousands of Waldorf schools around the world. Steiner also inspired a worldwide network of Camphill Communities—residential and working communities for disabled adults and youth, including two near Philadelphia with which the White Dog developed projects and events. In various ways, all of Steiner’s innovations recognize life’s interconnections and overcome traditional separations in society, education and finance.
Believing that financial transactions should be personal and transparent and based on long-term relationships, and in keeping with Steiner’s philosophy, Don developed a unique practice that brings RSF investors together with RSF borrowers in face-to-face meetings, where investors and borrowers discuss the interest rate that the borrower pays and the investor earns, and in the process get to know each other and the businesses or projects being supported. Here is another example of how relationships that had become separated in an anonymous global economic system are being reconnected—the relationship between lender and borrower.
As a BALLE board member, Don continues to strengthen our efforts in driving investment to local economies by connecting financial resources to BALLE businesses and local networks and suggesting ideas and speakers for BALLE’s monthly community capital webinars. RSF and BALLE work together with a group of innovative funders to direct more foundations and investors toward funding restorative local economies.
Additionally, once a year RSF co-sponsors BALLE’s national Community Capital Day along with our allies at Slow Money, an initiative launched by Woody Tasch, former CEO of Investors’ Circle. The goal of Slow Money is to bring more capital to local food systems through long-term, “slow” investments in sustainable small-food enterprises. It was Woody’s book, “Inquiries into the Nature of Slow Money: Investing as if Food, Farms, and Fertility Mattered,” that inspired me to approach Philadelphia’s TRF (already engaged in capitalizing grocery stores bringing fresh food to inner-city communities) about targeting investments toward growing the local food system in the Philadelphia region. Today, a recently hired food system analyst at TRF has already directed several loans to local farms and food enterprises, including the Fair Food Farmstand, showing once again how my investments in TRF provide me a living return. After serving as a Slow Money founding adviser, I watched Woody’s campaign manifest in local economies around the country, where many millions of dollars have been invested in farms and small-food enterprises that nurture the soil and feed their communities well. As Woody likes to say, “We must bring money back down to earth.”