Leslie Christian is a financial advisor who has been a leader in social and environmental investing for decades. She is a senior advisor at RSF Social Finance and NorthStar Asset Management and past board member and treasurer of the Business Alliance For Local Living Economies (BALLE). She was previously president and CEO of Portfolio 21 Investments.
Three years ago, in collaboration with a group of farmers and investors, my spouse and I formed an LLC called Living Lands. Together we wrote our purpose and articles of incorporation to place the highest priority on soil health. Under the astute guidance and leadership of Jim Baird, a longtime farmer in eastern Washington and a founding member of Slow Money, we purchased a 100-acre piece of farmland in the Columbia River Basin. Jim manages the land in conjunction with his other activities, including Cloudview EcoFarms, an educational and experimental farm project with operations in Royal City and Ephrata.
Our conversations have been wide-ranging and spirited. We have talked about soil and carbon and the best way to figure out whether we are improving the health of the soil. We are all concerned about water, and it has been enlightening to hear from Jim and Sam (another investor and also a farmer based near Ellensburg) about the history of our state’s water districts, irrigation programs, and farmer involvement. We are currently in the process of transitioning the land we purchased to certified-organic status, an important element in our pursuit of soil health, although by no means the “silver bullet.” Last year we leased the farmland to a young couple Jim has been mentoring. By leasing our land and raising commercial crops (currently alfalfa), they are able to make a living as farmers while continuing their explorations of farming practices.
We are not going to “scale” Living Lands. We may form Living Lands II and buy another piece of farmland. When we do, we’ll need to pay as much attention to it as we have to LLI. We found out that the property we bought has more rocks than we expected. It may not be suited to growing onions, but maybe potatoes. It’s complicated, but that’s what makes it meaningful. It’s personal and place-based and unique. We are forming relationships that we wouldn’t otherwise have had. We are placing the highest value on the land and the people who know the land.
Recently, I attended a breakfast meeting in Seattle. The sponsor was The Nature Conservancy’s NatureVest, a relatively new division that is bringing private and public capital to conservation through various kinds of investment. If I thought 100 acres of farmland in eastern Washington was complicated, then the work of NatureVest is off the charts. Our state’s land commissioner spoke about the scope of the need for conservation and at the same time the intimate, personal nature of every transaction. I cannot imagine NatureVest “scaling” its work. Rather, I see it experimenting, trying out ideas, sharing what works and doesn’t, spending a lot of time and energy in design and detail, and putting together fascinating, compelling conservation investments that address what’s really needed for life on this planet to sustain.
With Living Lands, it’s one piece of land at a time. And the same is true of NatureVest.
The vocal financial mainstream is dismissive of “one-offs” and seems to prefer algorithms to human ingenuity and common sense. In fact, even an employee of The Nature Conservancy had the audacity to say that he really hoped we wouldn’t need TNC and NatureVest someday—that the goal is to “figure all this stuff out” so the real money can come in and get all of this “to scale.” But, really, these are the kinds of investments that should take over the world—not by scaling so that Wall Street can swoop in and do its “magic,” but by inspiring the participants, engaging the public and working at an essential level—real dirt, real trees, real plants, and real people.
Scaling means making a product, service, or solution more uniform and repeatable. This may have made sense back in the industrialization and manufacturing eras of the 19th century and maybe the 20th century, but we have gotten carried away. For people who are so proud of our innovations and creativity, we are really quite old-fashioned to believe the same principles that brought us through the industrial age are going to see us through this next era. We seem to think it’s appropriate to scale everything—farms, education, healthcare, and even relationships. Yet, people and places are so much more diverse, nuanced and interdependent than assembly-line products or software code. When we scale enterprises that directly serve people and places in all of their uniqueness and weirdness, we must inevitably standardize our understanding of those people and places. In the process, we surely fail to engage them or ourselves fully. We sacrifice quality for quantity.
There’s another aspect to this insistence upon scaling. It feels top-down and controlled. It may be rationalized as a way to reach more people, but the underlying motivation is inevitably connected to increasing pro t margins. We should ask, “Scale for whom?” When we talk about “getting to scale,” it usually means getting to a scale that makes investors happy. Unfortunately, happy investors are often inclined to ignore or minimize employees, nature, communities, and families.
Like many of my friends and colleagues in Slow Money circles, I know it is time to move in a fundamentally new direction.