From Grantmaker to Financial Activist

This post is part of “Liberate Philanthropy,” a new blog series curated by Justice Funders to re-imagine and practice philanthropy free of its current constraints — the accumulation and privatization of wealth, and the centralization of power and control — to one that redistributes wealth, democratizes power and shifts economic control to communities. Throughout the series, we will be sharing stories from some of our most forward thinking, transformational leaders in philanthropy about how they are facilitating a Just Transition for philanthropy.

Tar Sands Healing Walk, July 2013. Photo by Healing Walk.

When people ask me what I do, I tell them I’m a financial activist. My job is to ensure Swift Foundation deploys all of our assets towards our mission. But I haven’t always felt that way.

For most of my career, I lived on the program side of the iron curtain in philanthropy. My passion was getting grant money to grassroots communities and human rights activists. I loved my work and felt comfortable in it. Why would I want to know how the board was investing our endowment?

There was no single moment when I awoke to a new way of seeing the truth of my role. It was more like a drumbeat — of connections and questions ­– slow and steady.

After joining Swift Foundation, I met a group of lawyers we supported advocating for the community of La Oroya, Peru where a smelter has caused high levels of lead contamination, especially in children. A U.S. corporation purchased the smelter, promising to modernize and reduce toxic emissions. They failed while continuing to take huge profits. The company’s greed shocked me.

First Nations political leaders announcing the legal challenge to the Enbridge proposal, July 2014. Photo courtesy of West Coast Environmental Law.

In British Columbia, First Nations members invited me into their wood smokehouses to taste savory salmon as they described a proposed thousand-mile oil pipeline crossing their territories’ mountains and rivers. The pipeline presented multiple new threats to the salmon fisheries they were working hard to restore. They mobilized and marched, met with their officials, tracked the companies, and united with other First Nations to declare their opposition and fight for their salmon-based culture. I was humbled by their determination.

The Swift board was pushing for more coherency in the investing and grant portfolios. They had developed a Mission Related Investment Policy, and had acted by investing in Guayaki Yerba Mate, MicroVest, and RSF Social Finance; moving cash into Community Development Finance Institutions such as the Latino Community Credit Union; and making a $1 million loan guarantee to MCE Social Capital. Still, 75% of the endowment was held in funds and companies around the globe, and Swift had no clear understanding of how they made their profits.

For the first time I connected the dots that my board had already observed. I realized that many of the companies in which we invested were engaged in industries such as mining, agribusiness, and oil and gas that were undermining the well being and self-determination of our partners.

I could no longer ignore the hypocrisy of using endowment wealth — generated by extractive industries — to support grants to Indigenous Peoples.

It was time for action and there was a solution.

I asked the Swift Foundation board to join the Divest Invest Pledge, a global movement to divest from fossil fuels and invest in climate solutions.

The board of directors responded with questions. Was the oil and gas Carbon 200 list worse than the Toxic 100 companies? Should we prohibit investing in agro-industrial corporations with GMO seeds, chemical fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides when Swift funded farmer-led agroecology? They wanted me to deepen my approach, think more holistically, and do no harm with all investments.

A New Responsibility

Over the next three years, I bridged the work of following our grantee partners’ and learning about our investments, while testing new ideas with the help of consultants. Finance terms were a foreign language. I asked endless questions about the construction of our endowment. But when we discussed a specific company, I related their activities to our partners and their economies.

Instead of being dazed by spreadsheets, I started to recognize how a companies’ profitability could be linked with an impact mission to create better paying jobs and a healthier environment.

As a result of our work, Swift reshaped operations to transform the way we invested. We articulated new No Buy Guidelines. We established a fresh relationship with our investment managers. We rewrote our investment policy. We set aside part of our endowment for mission first investments. We changed our orientation to the role of capital.

Focus on the Future

How did we reconcile our aspiration to invest in new ideas, businesses and funds with a predictable grant budget? We split our endowment into two portfolios. One is the $50 million market rate Core Portfolio that maintains our grant budget and staff, and does not grow. The other is a $10 million Transitional Investment Portfolio (TIP) that funds new economy opportunities including social impact funds, social entrepreneurs and, start-up businesses. Investments in the TIP can move to the core endowment once they perform at market rate, freeing up additional capital.

After our investment manager realigned our endowment along our No Buy Guidelines, I discovered it was 99% fossil fuel free! Swift signed the Divest Invest Pledge and I wrote a letter to the philanthropic community about our process.

Swift had learned something important from a partner: investing in renewable energy is complicated. The partner recounted several cases of how corporations engaging in large-scale renewable energy projects had engaged in land grabs, coercion, and violence to displace Indigenous Peoples.

Indeed, it is vital to listen to communities and ask for their feedback.

Today, our Transitional Portfolio includes a broad range of funds and investments focusing on sustainable businesses, access to credit and banking, food systems, and renewable energy. While we are proud of our Native American-led investments, Swift Foundation knows we are on a journey to liberate philanthropy and are working to deeply integrate capital throughout our work, address issues of equity for people of color, and deploy all of our assets towards our mission.

That’s why I no longer consider myself a grantmaker. Through the guidance and support of our partners and board, I have become a financial activist.

Jen Astone is executive director of the Swift Foundation and an RSF Integrated Capital Fellow focusing on transformative food system investments. Swift provides grants, investments and integrated capital to promote cultural and biological diversity. Swift supports Indigenous and local communities as well as organizations engaging in land and resource rights, traditional knowledge, agroecology, and alternative economic models. Swift is a member of Divest Invest, the AgroEcology Fund, and the Global Alliance for the Future of Food. Jen earned her Ph.D. in cultural anthropology with fieldwork on women’s gardens in Guinea, West Africa and lives in Aptos, California with her partner and 13-year old son.