What RFK’s “Ripples of Hope” (50 years ago today) can teach us about impact investing…not what you think

You’ve probably heard the phrase “ripples of hope.” And you might even be familiar with this full sentence:

Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring those ripples build a current which can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.

If, like me, you spend time in charitable foundation offices you’ve probably seen it on the wall somewhere (alongside similar sentiments from Margaret Mead and Gandhi). But you may not know the origins of that line — and how relevant the broader speech it comes from is for those of us working in the field of impact investing today.

Firty years ago today, on June 6, 1966, Robert Kennedy, delivered the speech that contained those lines to students in Cape Town, South Africa. (Transcript and sound recording here: ) This is generally considered one of the Top 10 political speeches delivered by an American in the 1960s . (Which might not seem worthy of a 50th anniversary reflection until you consider the competition — tough decade to crack the Top Five.)

As a South African immigrant to the United States, and former speechwriter for the African National Congress, I’ve long loved this speech for its content and its style (and even tried to copy the rhetorical flourish of it’s great opening paragraph). But more recently, I’ve reread the parts that are not well-remembered and seen important lessons for those of us working in the impact investing movement. Because, when you peel back the Cold War rhetoric and references to 1960s racial politics, at it’s heart, this speech is about what it takes to “introduc[e] a new order of things.”

And, at our best, impact investors are “introducing a new order of things,” as we seek to put profit-seeking investment in its rightful place alongside government and charity as a source of capital that can directly contribute to social justice and environmental sustainability.

So, what does Kennedy’s observations from 1960s movements for democracy and racial justice have to teach those of us promoting a different sort of new order now? Not just that we can all be ripples whose actions matter (though that’s a good reminder in the daily drag of trying to get impact investments done). His more important insights lie in his sobering detailing of the inevitable threats that those seeking to establish a new order face.

Consider how these four threats that Kennedy identified play themselves out today:

  1. Futility: When we stop believing that we can change the existing order, we are prone to give up. How many of us working in mainstream finance or private foundations have not faced moments when it just seemed that the forces of inertia were too dominant to be dislodged?
  2. Expediency: When we realize how hard it is to do this work with integrity, we are tempted to pass off relatively mainstream investments as impactful, or to praise what we know to be spurious claims by others.
  3. Timidity: Kennedy notes that few people are willing to “brave the disapproval of their peers”. How many of us are willing to change how we invest and manage assets while these new approaches still face skepticism? From our bosses? Our Boards? Our partners? Or to call out the expedient when we see it?
  4. Comfort: Those of us who care about investments, and who have the power to influence them — whether our institutions’ or our own — are immensely privileged. And with that privilege, we have the option to pursue a relatively easy path to material and professional comfort. How many of us have the strength to resist the urge to walk down that easy path, to give in to the security of the current order of things?

I realize this comparison may be a bit of a self-indulgent stretch. The stakes today may seem a little trivial, especially when compared to the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa and the civil rights movement in America. “Timidity” and “comfort” especially are poor excuses for inaction when we consider the relatively small price we face compared to what befall Kennedy and so many of the people he spoke about.

But the hard-fought progress those earlier movements won helped secure the space in which our movement can matter. And we honor their memory when we refuse to give in to these threats ourselves.

So I urge you to find a few minutes today to read this speech in full, and don’t just take comfort in the idea that you can be a ripple, but ask yourself what you can do to push back the four forces that threaten to calm the waters of our change.