Features | July 19, 2018

The Impact Alpha: A minister’s call for moral, as well as economic, revival

David Bank
ImpactAlpha Editor

David Bank

Fifty years after the assassination of Martin Luther King, another black southern minister is paying homage by organizing a new popular movement for the next 50 years.

The Rev. William Barber II of North Carolina has revived the Poor People’s Campaign that King launched in the last year of his life. Since 2013, Barber’s “Moral Mondays” marches in Raleigh have brought people together across race, class and issue areas.

This spring, the local revival became a national movement. The new Poor People’s Campaign, with 40 days of protests and events in 40 states, led to more than 2,000 arrests around an agenda that calls for voting rights, universal health care, fair wages and affordable food, education and housing.

Rev. Barber came to town last week and I went down to Berkeley’s First Congregational Church to hear his reflections on successful movement-building. A faith-based campaign of nonviolent civil disobedience may seem a long distance from the more genteel concerns of impact investors and entrepreneurs looking for investible, market-based solutions. But in a chaotic time of uncertain direction, getting some moral clarity seemed like a good idea.

“We are in the middle of a third reconstruction,” Barber said, recalling periods of racial progress right after the Civil War and during the civil rights movement. “We are either going to go real, real far backwards, or people are going to stand up and realize that the reason we are being fought against is not because we are weak, but because we are powerful.”

A related reckoning is at hand in the global capital markets as well, as divergent approaches vie for dominance. Conventional, or legacy, finance continues to exclude social and environmental considerations from investment decision-making. Impact investing, and more broadly ESG investing (for environmental and social, as well as governance, issues) brings such “externalities” back to the center of the capital markets.

The agenda for that global capital shift is encapsulated in agreements like the U.N. Sustainable Development Goals and the Paris climate accords which, if realized, will move trillions of dollars over the next decade toward inclusive, regenerative solutions. But where, we have wondered, is the popular support for that platform? The most-tweeted quote from our recent Returns on Investment podcast exploring that anomaly was roundtable regular Imogen Rose-Smith’s observation that “There is a paternalism in impact in a lot of the dialogue around globalism that is condescending and alienating to the very people we’re trying to help.”

Can impact investments build popular support for inclusive, sustainable and, yes, global prosperity?

A corollary may be that global issues are not the most effective way to mobilize Americans, rich or poor. Solar lighting in Africa or mobile health in India, massive impact opportunities though they may be, are fated to rank lower than jobs, housing and healthcare on any domestic agenda.

The SDGs of course, apply to developed as well as developing countries. And when it comes to progress toward the 2030 goals, America’s performance is at best middling. Indicators like life expectancy (already lower than many rich countries and now falling for three years running), obesity, addiction, suicide, gun violence and income inequality might well prompt other countries to push back: Physician, heal thyself.

“It’s not only how we treat the rest of the world, we’re treating our own society miserably now,” economist Jeff Sachs, an advisor to U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres for the SDGs, told me recently. Sachs thinks a U.S. agenda based on the SDGs could attract popular support, but despairs that political leaders will be able to chart a path forward. “We are in a complete dizzy spell,” he said.

From ‘Condemn and Disband’ to ‘Invest and Transform’

Which makes Rev. Barber’s leadership so exceptional. In North Carolina, he says, the Moral Mondays marches brought together diverse constituencies with a “fusion” agenda and changed the discussion “from right vs. left to right vs. wrong.”

“We started letting people see they used racism to get elected, but once they got elected, they were passing policies that were hurting mostly white people,” he explained in his talk. “We said, ‘It’s time for statesmen and stateswomen to rise up with the moral agenda that can transform the consciousness of the state.’”

What impact investing can bring to that moral agenda is the ability to make demands not only of government, but of capital itself. Such a possibility is implicit, for example, in the early mobilization around “opportunity zones,” the designated low-income census tracts in which investments can qualify for capital-gains tax deferrals or even reductions. As ImpactAlpha’s Dennis Price reports, champions of inclusive prosperity are working to ensure that opportunity-zone investment strategies align with community goals and fund local businesses that create good jobs, raise wages and build wealth for local communities as well as investors.

Community development lenders attract new investors to low-income neighborhoods

ImpactAlpha has profiled “new revivalists” around the country, who are building entrepreneurial ecosystems that are launching businesses and reviving communities. In Cincinnati and New Orleans, Mortar’s Derrick Braziel and Propeller’s Andrea Chen are helping local entrepreneurs of color participate in their communities’ revival. Brandon Dennison is starting to transform West Virginia’s coal country, one social enterprise at a time. Jacob Haar at Community Investment Management is part of a wave of innovation in lending that is getting capital to small businesses and underserved communities. Investors like Backstage Capital’s Arlan Hamilton, Kapor Capital’s Brian Dixon and Illumen Capital’s Daryn Dodson, and many others, are increasing access to capital for underestimated founders.

The fusion of Rev. Barber’s call for a moral revival with the work of such New Revivalists may lift up both. For the Poor People’s Campaign: strategies for inclusive prosperity and equitable opportunities for 140 million poor and low-wealth people in the U.S. For impact investors: a popular base grounded in the lived experience and aspirations of America’s own emerging market.

Reviving Martin Luther King’s campaign after 50 years is not an anniversary or a commemoration, but a call to action. “Give America a dream again, a hope again, a vision again,” Barber said. “We are not just against Trump, we are for a better America. That’s what we have to do.”