How impact investments are helping build healthy communities

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Guest Author

Kimberlee Cornett

Our zip codes play a big part in how long and well we live. It’s easier to lead a healthy life when you live in a place with fairly-paid jobs, stable housing, clean water, and green parks. Wealth influences health. By using a full suite of resources including grantmaking, policy change efforts, and impact investing, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF)—and all impact investors—can attract capital to investments that improve community conditions to help people live their healthiest possible lives.

RWJF is committed to improving health and racial equity for all in the United States. In partnership with others, we are working to develop a Culture of Health that provides every individual with a fair and just opportunity to thrive, no matter who they are, where they live, or how much money they have. We use grants, strategic communications, policy change efforts, and impact investments—loans, deposits, and guarantees—as our tools to build and share evidence, advance public policies and system changes, and expand community-based programs that help improve the health and wellbeing of everyone in the United States.

Engaging the capital markets is a necessary part of changing community conditions. While we have a modest legacy portfolio of program-related investments, we made a renewed commitment to impact investment in 2020 with an initial $200 million allocation. With these resources, we’re focused on three strategies:

  • Strengthening the community development finance system: We’re investing and partnering with intermediaries that ensure the durability and expansiveness of capital deployment into low-income communities. We’re also seeking to identify the factors in the municipal bond sector that make issuances more equitable and the results more transparent to investors.
  • Investing in racial equity and wealth creation: We’re pursuing investment opportunities and partnerships that bend the arc toward racial equity by expanding home ownership, promoting high-quality jobs, and innovating wealth-building pathways for people of color.
  • Supporting programmatic initiatives program-directed investments: We’re making investments that are linked to RWJF’s specific programmatic priorities, such as improving access to affordable homes and clean water.

As a relatively new impact investor, RWJF is working to deeply embed racial equity in how we do our work and the outcome we hope to see. Our Impact Investments team calls this our “3P” strategy: investing in diverse people, providing the field with products that are equity-like, and making the process of identifying investments accessible to the broadest range of organizations, We keep all three “P”s in mind as we build our pipeline investments—people, process, and products—with health equity as our North Star. We are committed to increasing investments in neighborhoods and places that historically have been excluded from investment and opportunity. Among our recent impact investments, we made the following commitments:

  • A $2.5 million investment in the Dearfield Fund for Black Wealth, which seeks to expand homeownership among Black families in the Denver metropolitan area by providing low-cost down payment assistance. For most American families, homeownership is the primary way to build wealth, which enables better health and well-being. However, systemic barriers and discrimination have resulted in homeownership rates among Black households that are the lowest of any racial group in the United States. The Dearfield Fund expects to support 500 first-time Black homeowners in its work to drive wealth-building to advance racial equity. 
  • A $4.75 million guarantee to Prudential to facilitate a loan to ROC USA to expand ownership of manufactured housing—commonly referred to as mobile homes—and the largest source of unsubsidized affordable housing in the country. With manufactured housing, the homeowner typically owns the built property but typically not the land on which it sits. ROC USA wants to flip the script and give power back to the homeowner by providing residents the opportunity to form a cooperative association and borrow the money required to purchase the land, thus granting them the ability to build equity and generate wealth through homeownership.  
  • $40 million in cash deposits in seven banks and credit unions designated as minority depository institutions, including the Bank of Cherokee County; First Independence Bank, the only African American‐owned bank headquartered in the state of Michigan; and the Latino Community Credit Union.

Done well, impact investing can create bottom-line financial returns for investors; strengthen communities; and improve health, well-being, and racial equity. As we grow this work at RWJF, we will prioritize co-investing with our peer foundations and bringing capital from the commercial market into communities. 


Kimberlee Cornett is director of impact investments at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.