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Finance & Investment
Impact Investing Grows, But There’s Still a Long Road to Financial Inclusion

More funds and firms are targeting financially underserved communities, but the impact investing movement and government funding need to be more accessible and intentional to address systemic inequalities and racial disparities in investing.

The evidence is clear: Despite rapid economic growth, the United States has become more unequal over the past few decades. The income of the highest-earning 20 percent of households has steadily grown, while the wealth gap between the richest and poorest families has doubled since 1989. This is even more true when it comes to racial inequality. The income gap between Black and white households has held steady since 1970, with average Black household income stuck at just 56 percent of white household income.

This is problematic, and pervasive. Low-income communities — and communities of color, in particular — see little investment, even in basic necessities such as healthcare, education and housing. As government spending drops, this has led to catastrophes such as Flint, Michigan’s ongoing water crisis. Private capital has not replaced government spending in many communities — one reason is that many financial institutions and investors see no reason to invest in places where they believe there’s little opportunity to get a return on their investment.

RBC Global Asset Management, based in Toronto, Canada, has been doing some form of impact investing across North America since 1996. According to Ron Homer, RBC’s Chief Strategist for Impact Investing, the firm looks for synergies.

“Our strategy has been focused on win-win scenarios,” he told Sustainable Brands™, “activities and products that address a specific social benefit, and do it in such a way that provides a market rate return.”

Other impact investing efforts include Upstart Co-Lab — a project of Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors, which focuses on the creative industry; Domini, which factors in diversity and focuses on investments that build a better future for the planet and people; Visa’s recent commitment to elevate 50 million small and micro businesses worldwide — with a special initiative aimed at helping Black women entrepreneurs in the US; and Citi’s $150 million Impact Fund, which makes equity investments in double-bottom-line private-sector companies. Even Kiva, which made its name as a microfinance lender for projects in developing countries has launched a program focused on low-income communities in the US.

Around the US and elsewhere, protests are highlighting how many communities — particularly those where minorities reside — have been left behind. Impact investing continues to grow; and with it, we’ve seen the emergence of firms such as San Francisco-based Robasciotti & Philipson, which focuses its investments in what they call transitional capital, addressing systemic problems faced disproportionately by people of color. But the movement has not yet scaled to the level needed to address systemic inequalities and racial disparities in investing.

It is clear that not only does impact investing need to continue to grow, it must also be more intentional. RBC’s model works, but Homer agrees it is just one approach in a sector that needs a diversity of tools.

“The social unrest has highlighted some of the different perspectives on reaching underserved communities,” he said.

There’s a role for the government, too. Early on, RBC’s impact investing program worked with federal loan provider Fannie Mae to develop mortgage outreach programs, to combat predatory lending. Blending private capital with public finance could be a way to scale impact, reduce risk, and get more investors to lend to underserved communities and sectors.

“Over the long haul, it will require some private capital married with government support to solve many of these issues,” Homer said. “There are certain things that governments can do to make some of the existing programs a little bit more accessible and intentional. We are hopeful that, going forward, there will be a focus on public policies and regulations that can help that.”

The COVID-19 pandemic, though, is adding another challenge. Though the economic fallout is far from finished, or clear, there is evidence that it is impacting the poor more than the well-off, and could disproportionately impact people of color. The need for better housing, healthcare, and other public services is only likely to grow — necessitating more investment. Success will also require ensuring that community voices, and needs, are central.

“We think that it is important [that within] the communities that are underserved, local advocates who are trying to promote an improved environment are aware of some of these tools and how they work, and can make suggestions to how to make them more effective,” Homer said. “From that, we’ll get a better outcome.”