Thursday, November 18, 2010

Sister Corinne Florek - a True Leader of the Impact Investment Industry

Carrie Hutchison McGarry manages marketing and communications for Calvert Foundation.

Earlier this month, I had the luck and privilege to meet Sister Corinne Florek at Opportunity Finance Network’s annual conference, where she was honored as the recipient of the 2010 Ned Gramlich Lifetime Achievement Award. Sister Corinne is whip smart and lots of fun, though her gentle brown eyes, calm demeanor, and hint of a soft Midwestern accent from her days in Michigan will initially fool you.

In the world of investing, Sister Corinne is a maverick.

In the 1960s, a time when women – both in their faith and in their day-to-day lives – were exploring new roles and seeking new freedoms and opportunities, Sister Corinne and her fellow sisters were facing a dilemma. They saw a real need to put money toward the care of their elder sisters, who were retired and in need of support. Yet, as nuns, many of them felt that their vow to poverty required them to give their money away to those in their community who were suffering. Sister Corinne saw a third option, which is how her journey began, a journey – as she said at the conference – that will continue on long after she does. 

Sister Corinne at the OFN conference

Sister Corinne saw that she and her fellow sisters could pool their money and use it to invest – but not in companies. Instead, they invested their money in community organizations and other non-profits that were helping low-income families and fighting poverty every day, but that could also pay back inexpensive loans with interest. Sometimes there was no interest payment. And sometimes the principal didn’t come back. But on average, this experiment paid off, leaving money to care for the retired nuns in need of assistance, and – while invested – providing much-needed support for people living in underserved communities.

Sister Corinne went on to bring in other groups and other investors, in order to create a network that had a more powerful voice as an investor. She involved the Women Religious, which is comprised of Catholic women from congregations around the United States, as well as many other partners along the way.

Since the conference was hosted this year in lovely (I did leave my heart there) San Francisco, Sister Corinne was able to reach out to the many women in that area that had been part of the investment work she does. Many came, and during her acceptance speech, she called them up on the stage so that they might look out into the audience and see the people who did the work they supported through their investments. She asked organizations who received investment from organizations she works with – or any faith-based investor – to stand up. I was very proud to do so on behalf of Calvert Foundation, which has worked with faith-based investors of multiple denominations for many years.

Many, even in our small (yet growing) impact investment industry, know little of this story. And many more – even those at the organizations receiving investment dollars from groups run and advised by Sister Corinne – fail to understand that these investments are funded solely by the nuns (not the church), and come out of their modest pay, as well as bake sales and other fundraisers.

At Calvert Foundation, we often talk about how innovative we were by starting the work that we do – bringing the opportunity for everyday investors to help low-income communities through investment – over 15 years ago now. But it became clear to me in meeting Sister Corinne and hearing her story that there were inklings of this idea long before Calvert Foundation was even on the radar.

I was truly touched by Corinne’s work, but even more so by her energy and her spirit. Having been raised in the Christian church, I have always found great comfort in the quiet strength that emanates from the women of a congregation. Sister Corinne is someone guided by faith, but driven by her own amazing gifts – which, as evidenced by her success, she so freely shares with those around her. OFN honored her at the conference, but I hope to share her story here so that others know about her work.

Congratulations – and thank you – Sister Corinne!

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

A View of Post-quake Haiti

A few months ago, Calvert Foundation Sr. Associate Patrick Davis took a trip to Haiti to volunteer for a friend's nonprofit, United Schools of Haiti. Aside from visiting Calvert Foundation borrower Fonkoze in Port-au-Prince, Patrick spent most of his time in Haiti helping to build a school in the countryside town of Fond des Blancs. Take a view into a post-quake Haiti through his eyes in his post on our blog. Patrick also made a video slideshow of the photos he took on his trip that we've posted to our YouTube site.
Last year – before the massive earthquake in Port-au-Prince put Haiti in the forefront of everyone’s minds – I began doing some volunteer work with a friend’s nonprofit organization, United Schools of Haiti. His group was planning a trip to Haiti in the summer of 2010 to do some construction work on a school and to network with local officials to explore new opportunities. When he asked me if I’d like to join them on the trip, I was thrilled. I truly enjoy the opportunity to have an impact in the work that I do at Calvert Foundation, but as an intermediary, it’s rare that I get the chance to see the fruits of my labor in a very direct way. As a result, this trip to Haiti was very appealing to me. Service has always been an important component in my life, and this would be an ideal way to get my hands dirty and experience a new culture.

Patrick Davis (pictured upper right) in Haiti.
Then came January 12th, 2010. The earthquake. This erased any uncertainty about my decision to go to Haiti. I had to go. After seeing the news reports and reading the stories, I felt compelled to see firsthand the state of things in a country that had dealt with a chronic history of suffering – be it a result of natural or political disaster. I hoped to accomplish a few things on my trip. First, I hoped to be a passionate and energetic representative of my country. Many times in my travels in the developing world, I’ve noticed that being from the United States isn’t exactly an asset. This has always been a chip on my shoulder in a way, and compelled me to work harder, be more compassionate, and dig deeper when I’ve been witness to the need in the developing world. Second, I hoped to be able to get some work done. Through United Schools of Haiti, we were supporting the construction of an elementary school in Fond des Blancs, and I wanted to develop some connections more broadly that could benefit the Haitian school community. Third, I hoped to reinvigorate my own sense of commitment to serving humanity. Though I’ve listed it last, this was probably the most important reason for my trip. I believe it’s important for all of us who live a life of relative privilege to seize opportunities that force us to confront that state of privilege. It’s not always easy to remember that the majority of the world lives without clean water, electricity, and food security. I hoped to be able to come home from my journey and share meaningful stories, pictures, and experiences with friends and family. Reflecting on these experiences would undoubtedly lead to discussions about what we can do. And there is so much we can do.

In August, I went to Haiti. During my time there, I found myself constantly vacillating between poignant moments of hope and despair. Arriving in Port-au-Prince, I was struck by the lack of progress with the cleanup. Entire city blocks were still nothing more than rubble. I saw countless families living in tents on top of – or outside of – what was left of their homes. The majority of the population that had not left Port-au-Prince was crammed into tiny shacks with blue USAID tarps to keep the rain out. We visited our guide’s house in the countryside just outside of Port-au-Prince, which was reduced to rubble as a result of the after shocks. He had lost his home and his sister in the quake. The lead architect for our school project lost his wife. Children in our school community lost their parents. Nearly every adult and child that I interviewed had lost a family member. Of the estimated three million people living in Port-au-Prince at the time of the quake, 300,000 died. This was made evident in the storefronts of funeral homes – sadly some of the only thriving businesses in the capital city. The scale of the disaster was almost incomprehensible, but at the same time, completely visible. During my entire stay in Port-au-Prince, I saw just one government bulldozer removing rubble. In contrast, I saw many people with sticks and shovels, digging through the rubble to find anything of value that they might be able to sell for a little income. It’s still unclear to me how the population that remains in Port-au-Prince is able to survive, but this speaks to the incredible resilience of the people and the human spirit.

During my stay I began to understand a little bit more about how necessity breeds innovation and entrepreneurism. Everyone, everywhere seemed to be selling something. When our group badly blew out a tire in the Champs-de-Mars district, we were greeted at the side of the road by a few men who repaired the tire in a matter of minutes. They used a simple heating mechanism that I hadn’t seen before to rework the rubber in the tire. I laughed to myself thinking about a recent experience back home when I had a miniscule gash in a tire, and of course, it was “too large to repair” so I was forced to buy a completely new one. No chance our friends in Haiti would have discarded my tire. At the same tire fix-it stand, I noticed a few men getting haircuts. In the time it took for a tire repair the men at the stand realized they could offer haircuts as well – truly an entrepreneurial vibe.

In the countryside near our school project, I noticed the same resourcefulness and creative thinking. Of course there was no public water system, and for that matter, no infrastructure whatsoever – only dirt roads and houses built by hand-mixed concrete. Nearly all of the houses I visited in the community had their own rainwater harvesting systems. Gutter systems led from the roof to a large, dug out cistern, which collected water each time it rained. This water was used for cooking, drinking, and washing, among other things. Due to the absence of industry and the pollution that comes with it, the pure rainwater was a valuable asset that the community had learned to harness over time. Many households had saved up to buy one solar panel, which they used to light their houses at night. In fact, besides the few motorbikes and the intermittent production of charcoal, I would guess that the countryside community was almost completely carbon neutral.

Whereas the chaos and enormity of Port-au-Prince made thinking about opportunities for development quite overwhelming, it was easy to see how some simple training and technical assistance could go a long way in the countryside. I hope that Haiti continues to deurbanize as a result of the earthquake. I believe there is a great possibility for strong, sustainable, self-reliant communities to emerge and prosper outside of the over-burdened capital. This phenomenon is happening as we speak – and it may very well be the most direct path to better outcomes in the future for Haiti’s people.

Since I’ve returned home from my trip, I’m wrestling with ideas about how I can be of service to Fond des Blancs and the countryside community that welcomed me with such open arms. In the short term, I’m helping to sponsor a scholarship for a student who will be attending school in the fall. I’m also continuing to work with a talented Haitian entrepreneur who has dreams of creating a public health radio station for the community, opening up an English-training center, and organizing classes to teach Haitians about rainwater drip irrigation and micro-farming.

If you’re interested in hearing more about my experience in Haiti, please check back on our blog in the coming weeks, where I’ll share more stories and anecdotes about the challenges and opportunities I observed on my trip.

Calvert Foundation Receives Top Honor for “Innovative Social Impact Investing"

While impact investing may often be looked at as direct means to an end, the Calvert Foundation has re-routed the investment approach by effectively promoting innovative social impact investing tools to disadvantaged communities.

On Tuesday, October 26th, Calvert Foundation received Top Honor for “Innovative Social Impact Investing." This award was an amazing accomplishment for us, as our fantastic microfinance borrowers have provided hand ups, not hand outs, and our investors have received a return upon doing so. This award was part of the Investment & Innovation in Microfinance conference, which continued through Wednesday, October 27th.
Art Stevens, Vice President of Sales and Marketing, accepted the award on behalf of Calvert Foundation with an acknowledgement of the growth of retail investors in this sector and a nod to the wonderful microfinance institutions we work with, some of which were in the room when we accepted the award.

Interim President and CEO, Lisa Hall was pleased to receive this award: "We are thrilled to be recognized our work in this area. Fifteen years ago, we became pioneers in bringing everyday people the opportunity to invest in microfinance. Now we see many others adopting this model, and more and more investors coming into the space. However, we certainly wouldn’t be where we are today without the fantastic microfinance borrowers in our portfolio doing meaningful, impactful work."

The panel of judges was composed of experienced microfinance experts, including, Monica Brand, Principal Director, Frontier Investments, ACCION International; Daniel Dax, General Manager, LuxFlag; George Conard, Executive Director, Technology for Microfinance Grameen Foundation; Marten Leijon, Executive Director, The MIX; David Satterthwaite, Senior Global MicroInsurance Officer, Oxfam America; and Joan Trant, Executive Director, IAMFI.

With such an esteemed set of industry leaders and microfinance experts choosing us for this award, it was a true honor to be the recognized for our innovative social impact investing efforts.