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Innovating Philanthropy

Insights from the 2024 Mission Investors Exchange Conference

This May, impact investing practitioners from the world of philanthropy gathered in Los Angeles for the biennial Mission Investors Exchange National Conference. The conference is focused on creating peer-to-peer connections to drive innovation and growth among the leaders of the philanthropy sector as well as wealth managers, advisors, and intermediaries committed to the use of philanthropic assets for impact.

One of the key themes that emerged from the panels and discussions was the role of patient, long-term capital in providing catalytic funding that unlocks other financial resources. This type of capital demonstrates how philanthropic organizations can drive change aligned with their values, whether focused on social equity, environmental sustainability, or health outcomes. Speakers also emphasized that such funding is critical for building infrastructure, enabling organizations and communities to move and absorb capital more effectively.

Harold Pettigrew, President & CEO, Opportunity Finance Network; Beth Bafford, CEO, Climate United; Jahi Wise, Senior Advisor, Environmental Protection Agency; Debra Schwartz, Managing Director, Impact Investments, John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation at Mission Investors Exchange 2024 conference.

(from left) Harold Pettigrew, President & CEO, Opportunity Finance Network; Beth Bafford, CEO, Climate United; Jahi Wise, Senior Advisor, Environmental Protection Agency; Debra Schwartz, Managing Director, Impact Investments, John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation

Another key theme underscoring the conference was the interconnectedness of various societal and environmental challenges we face, emphasizing the need for a systems-level approach rather than addressing each problem in isolation. For example, effectively tackling food insecurity can drive economic empowerment, housing stability, environmental justice, and address racial disparities.

Activating Capital on the Main Stage

Each of the three conference plenaries focused on the themes of big change and big action, which resonated throughout the entire event.

To kick off the conference, Matt Onek, President and CEO of Mission Investors Exchange, urged attendees to engage deeply with each other, think boldly, and pursue new ideas and partnerships: “The philanthropic community has the unique opportunity, and I would say the responsibility to fight even harder for social and environmental change and to really be a leader in helping to build a more just and sustainable future.”

Jay Brown, Co-Founder and Vice Chairman, Roc Nation; La June Montgomery Tabron, President and CEO, Kellogg Foundation at 2024 Mission Investors Exchange conference

Jay Brown, Co-Founder and Vice Chairman, Roc Nation; La June Montgomery Tabron, President and CEO, Kellogg Foundation discuss “Unlocking All Assets for Impact”

The opening plenary session brought together leading foundations, asset managers, and community organizations to discuss how to activate capital for equity. Activating for equity means going beyond tokenism, building models that support businesses, not only providing access to capital, and considering the various levers necessary to drive system-wide change. According to Cheryl Dorsey, President of Echoing Green, “Capital is necessary but not sufficient. You also need community, connections, and collaboration.”

Another key theme underscoring the conference was the interconnectedness of various societal and environmental challenges we face, emphasizing the need for a systems-level approach rather than addressing each problem in isolation.

Tonya Allen, President of McKnight Foundation, emphasized that foundations and philanthropic organizations should not be fearful about backlash and negative sentiment for investing in causes that they care about. “As a philanthropic institution, we have no greater risk than the folks who have been excluded from our financial system in this country who haven’t had an opportunity to lean into prosperity. You have the freedom of choice to invest in the charitable things that express your values, and we need to lean into those freedoms and fight for them.”

Sam Gill, President and CEO, Doris Duke Foundation; Nicole Taylor, President and CEO, Silicon Valley Community Foundation; Flozell Daniels Jr., CEO, Mary Reynolds Babcock Foundation; Bruce McNamer, Builders Initiative at 2024 Mission Investors Exchange Conference

(from left) Sam Gill, President and CEO, Doris Duke Foundation; Nicole Taylor, President and CEO, Silicon Valley Community Foundation; Flozell Daniels Jr., CEO, Mary Reynolds Babcock Foundation; Bruce McNamer, Builders Initiative

A plenary on Unlocking All Assets for Impact focused on the diverse strategies foundations can use to activate capital across their portfolios. A central theme of the discussion was the need to balance returns with mission-aligned impact. Sam Gill, President and CEO of the Doris Duke Foundation, summarized this balance, stating his goal is to “use the tools of finance to advance the mission,” recognizing the unique impact both grants and investments can achieve. The group also discussed various financial tools beyond grants and endowment investments, such as Donor Advised Funds (DAFs), partnerships with Community Development Financial Institutions (CDFIs), and concessionary investments. Foundations need to be creative in their investment approaches to meet their diverse impact goals, a point later echoed by La June Montgomery Tabron of the W. K. Kellogg Foundation.

Jahi Wise, Senior Advisor to the Administrator at the Environmental Protection Agency, reinforced the importance of intersectional and collaborative tactics when tackling the climate crisis. “When we talk about climate, we’re talking about people. If we want to center people in climate, we need to center institutions that have a track record of centering people,” Wise said during a plenary panel on the need and opportunity in climate finance.

Breakouts and beyond

Beyond the main stage, attendees had the opportunity to dive deeper into topics through breakout sessions, professional gatherings, workshops, and site visits.

Miguel Santana, President and CEO, California Community Foundation; Karen Bass, Mayor of Los Angeles at 2024 Mission Investoers Exchange conference

Miguel Santana, President and CEO, California Community Foundation; Karen Bass, Mayor of Los Angeles discuss “Activating for Equity in a Time of Change”

At a breakout session on decarbonization and Net Zero, foundation leaders discussed the role of the philanthropic sector in driving companies’ sustainability actions. One key point was that with the passage of the Inflation Reduction Act, $27 billion of federal money will flow into communities to drive clean energy and infrastructure projects. Local organizations need to quickly build capacity to deploy this capital effectively. Another topic was whether foundations should commit to Net Zero themselves, and the consensus was that the best way to drive boardroom engagement is often not as a single activist investor, but as a collective.

Another panel challenged funders to take advantage of the unprecedented amount of federal funding available for community development. The Inflation Reduction Act (IRA), American Rescue Act, CHIPS & Science Act, and Bi-Partisan Infrastructure Law collectively provide about $1 trillion for American communities. Session speakers pointed out that, adjusted for inflation, this is more capital than the New Deal. Fran Seegull, President of The U.S. Impact Investing Alliance, emphasized that leveraging these funds largely depends on private and philanthropic organizations, but the “success or failure of these initiatives will have significant implications on trust in institutions.”

Another session brought together legal experts from philanthropy and public policy to discuss the potential implications of the Supreme Court’s 2023 decision to strike down affirmative action. The speakers emphasized that one part of an organization’s approach should be understanding the amount of risk — legal risk, social risk, and capital risk. The next part is deciding what balance of risks feels right when pursuing their mission. The discussion mirrored comments from Flozell Daniels, Jr., CEO of the Mary Reynolds Babcock Foundation, on the main stage later that day: “We are having an honest and difficult conversation on risk management. Not only what we might lose if we invest, but what we might lose if we don’t invest — from a diversity, equity, and racial justice perspective.”

Roy Swan, Head of Mission Investments, Ford Foundation and Ava DuVernay, Director and Screenwriter

Roy Swan, Head of Mission Investments, Ford Foundation and Ava DuVernay, Director and Screenwriter discuss “Empowering Change through Impact Investing”

The conference concluded with a captivating conversation between award-winning filmmaker Ava DuVernay and Ford Foundation’s Roy Swan. Remarks from DuVernay inspired attendees and seemed to reflect many of the learnings from across the whole conference. They shared the success of a unique Hollywood partnership that leveraged impact investing and the influence of the entertainment industry, endeavoring to shift narratives and activate capital. The duo were well positioned to wrap up the week’s events, using the project to reinforce the call of speakers across the conference for creative, collaborative capital solutions.

A storyteller at heart, Elizabeth Gilbert Kaetzel, an Impact Entrepreneur correspondent, has nearly a decade of experience implementing communications strategies within the social impact sector. As Founder of Narratur Studio, she specializes in crafting messaging that aligns with organizations' values and advances their social impact and capital goals. Elizabeth’s work ... Read more
Juli Iacuaniello, an Impact Entrepreneur Correspondent, has 20+ years of experience leading B2B marketing, strategy and business development at companies ranging from startup to multi-billion dollar. Most recently, she was the Marketing Director at Aquacycl, helping to grow the company from startup to scale-up, with multiple recognitions, including being a ... Read more

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