Impact Investing: New Wine into Old Wineskins

Image by   Amos Bar-Zeev

Image by Amos Bar-Zeev

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by Jeffrey Decko

More than thirty years ago, I began work in the community investment field as a Jewish activist working with people of other faiths, races and national origins. Working now at the Calvert Foundation, I have found an eagerness among other faith-based investors to continue growing the impact investing field which has become much larger and more financially sophisticated than it was a generation ago.

Faith-based social investing in low-income communities was a much narrower field then, but it was unquestionably a leading edge of what has become the highly visible and rapidly growing impact investment sector. Led by orders of nuns who bravely risked their own retirement funds and institutional assets, the movement grew to include mainline Protestant churches and one small but innovative player that initiated a program to stimulate Jewish American participation in low-income community investing. As the field grew, so did participants’ skill sets. Today faith-based impact investors are no longer simply prophetic advocates and committed organizers; rather they have learned to be skilled financial experts, innovative dealmakers and risk evaluators, efficient administrators, experienced salespeople and marketing mavens, and technology wizards.

But although faith-based social investment has grown to include hundreds of actors, the predominant mode of activity has been overwhelmingly defined by silo-defined involvement. Only rarely have social investors from faith-based communities joined together to increase the volume of their investments and leverage their complimentary skills and capacities to increase their impact. An important exception to this denominationally limited social investment model was the establishment of the Isaiah Fund after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. Then, approximately a dozen-and-a-half faith communities combined to establish an advisory body that supervised a small organizing and technical staff to invest some $7 million in a pooled fund which was dedicated to rebuilding New Orleans and to creating a structure that could be used to respond with financing for low-income communities affected by other major disasters such as Hurricane Sandy.

Over the past decade-plus since Hurricanes Katrina and Rita devastated New Orleans and the Gulf Coast region, a new spirit has arisen within the faith-based social investment movement. This ethos has been wonderfully exemplified in part by the activities of the Isaiah Fund and the Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility (ICCR). Alongside the dramatic expansion of both domestic and international social investing, faith-based communities have been expanding their vision to include classic religious values of celebration and outright community building in their embrace of the generally secular model of impact investing. Through their evolving efforts, faith communities may actually be adding a deeply humanizing feature to impact investing which already exhibits consistently increasing degrees of cooperation and collaboration, if only to increase leverage and outcomes.

Recently, in numbers of meetings and conferences as well as in individual conversations, I have heard faith-based investors repeatedly express great re-dedication to the principles that originally motivated them to direct their religious activism through the use of personal and institutional financial assets to develop their neighborhoods, regions and nations and to sustain our planet. In their framing of it, the preeminent of those values is Justice which stands as the keystone that strongly binds all the others. Beyond their efforts to stimulate commitment to impact investing within their own religious and ethnic communities, faith-based impact investors now seek to meet the current historical moment by transcending the borders of their respective traditions to stand together as stakeholders of all that we hold in common: our families, communities and the planet itself. Happily, representatives from the great scriptural traditions, both West and East, have stood up to be counted as advocates for the worldwide impact investment movement. They have identified the web of planetary interdependence in which we all reside and the prophetic responsibility to act that we share as individuals and as members of the range of institutions with which we are affiliated. Leadership for this effort has notably been offered by some of the world’s great religious leaders including the Dalai Lama and Pope Francis.

Now, that sensibility is being activated and brought to scale. Recognizing the trends and tendencies among faith-based investors, Calvert Foundation has chosen to take advantage of its own financial strength and staff capacities to establish the Jubilee Assembly an umbrella forum dedicated to impact investing for self-identified faith-based individuals and institutions. “Jubilee” refers to the overall process described in the Hebrew Bible, of restoring capital to the most economically deprived sectors of society. It is a term with deep social justice resonance for all three of the great Western religious traditions, Judaism, Christianity and Islam.

The Jubilee Assembly will bind together and brand the dozens of religiously-based impact investors who already hold Calvert Foundation’s Community Investment Notes® and it will attract others at both the national and congregational levels across faith traditions. Besides providing a public forum for faith-based investors to promote Impact and low-income community investing, the Jubilee Assembly will provide access for them to make customized selections within the existing context of Calvert Foundation’s Community Investment Note®. (Even so, precisely in order to help build the field, Jubilee Assembly members will not have to purchase CF’s Community Investment Note® to enroll: )

Besides reaching out to various faith communities, one innovative aspect of the Jubilee Assembly is the Tzedek (Justice) Alliance which provides Jewish Americans with a unique venue for impact investing that coincides with the Jewish ethical tradition of reaching out to those in need with empowering investments which are preferred even to grants and charity. In addition to that, the Jubilee Assembly will include representation from both Christian and Muslim communities. Some of the initial partners in the Jubilee Assembly are Azzad Asset Management, Faith and Money Network, Praxis Mutual Funds, Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, Trinity Health and United Church of Christ.

Calvert Foundation (CF) is both a logical and excellent home for the Jubilee Assembly. For over 20 years, Calvert Foundation ( has offered a convenient and risk-mitigated way to invest for social good. As the only deep impact, fixed-income investment opportunity that is available with a CUSIP through brokerage firms, the Community Investment Note has allowed investors to receive consistent financial returns and measurable social returns[1]. The capital CF raises through the Note is used to make loans to non-profits and social enterprises throughout the U.S. and around the world. CF has helped over 15,000 investors channel over $1.2 billion into organizations creating social impact with a 100% repayment rate. In all that time, CF has built strong and continuing working relationships with dozens of faith-based leaders and institutions that have bought CF’s Notes and created remarkable impact investment projects throughout the U.S. and worldwide. Not surprisingly, some of their most remarkable deals have involved the nexus between key concerns of faith communities: environment, energy and poverty as reflected in Calvert Foundation’s environmental portfolio and women’s investment initiative WIN-WIN.

This and other similar impact investment work is being adopted increasingly by religiously-oriented (and also committed secular) investors to realize one purpose: to create greater financial equity for people and communities at the margins in order to bring greater financial opportunity and sustainability for communities and the environment, to do Justice! Equally significant, these impact investors are being joined directly on an ever increasing basis, by people at the margins both in the U.S. and throughout our ever more globalized world. Partly as a result of the impact investing and fair trade movements, those folks have not only benefited from financial investments, they have also been educated (and educated themselves!) to become more financially knowledgeable planetary citizens. In that way, the beneficiaries become partners and benefactors so the aspiration becomes material reality through effective impact investing that transcends mere good intentions.

If “community” is a value of American civic religion, it is certainly an aspiration of traditional religious teachings. For that reason, faith-based investors have readily identified with impact investing based on their historical participation in community investment initiatives ever since the Community Development Financial Institutions (CDFI) movement began. In the religiously alive consciousness of those investors, there is no distinction between lenders and borrowers; they are all stakeholders in a commonweal of connection and mutuality. Of course this attitude is not exclusive to faith-based investors but it is their hallmark. For them “community” is an inclusive honorific and not an objectifying euphemism for the needy and disempowered. Similarly, “impact” describes the social and economic benefits to be realized by everyone in the process.

Faith-based investors recognize that low-income community investing and impact investing are effectively the same. Both have the capacity to help bond together and even heal disparate segments of our fragmented nation and world. Calvert Foundation’s Jubilee Assembly and various other denominational and religiously inspired community and impact investment projects aim to link unexpected partners from within our society and across the globe. These faith-based investor activists engage in impact investing that is premised on initiatives which model a transcendence of borders, going beyond the boundaries of our conventional and predictable expectations to accomplish material ends with spiritual dividends for all parties concerned.


Article by Jeffrey Dekro, who has been a community and money organizer for almost 40 years. In 1980, he founded the Non-Profit Energy Management Corporation along with a subsidiary loan fund that helped finance energy conservation measures by Philadelphia faith-based congregations and nonprofits. Jeffrey founded The Shefa Fund in 1988, which he led for 18 years before initiating a merger with Jewish Fund for Justice that created the Jewish Funds for Justice, now Bend the Arc. At Shefa, Jeffrey established the TZEDEC Economic Development Campaign, which stimulated more than $50 million in American Jewish and faith-based investment for low-income community development to promote affordable housing, small business loans and vital social services. In 2008, after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, he conceived and founded the Isaiah Fund with other faith-based activists and institutional partners.

Jeffrey is now the Director of Faith-Based Initiatives for Calvert Foundation (CF), a new position designed specifically for him. CF is a non-profit that enables people and institutions to invest in its Community Investment Note to provide community development financing and services to under-served communities in the US and worldwide. Through the Community Investment Note, CF connects individual investors with organizations around the globe that develop affordable housing, create jobs, protect the environment, and working in numerous other ways for the social good. Since 1995, more than 15,000 Calvert Foundation investors have invested more than $1 billion.