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• Finding the Right Strategic Consultant: A Discussion Among Confluence Members

July 31 2018
July 31 2018

Building a Grassroots Investment Fund

Several years ago, a cohort of project partners asked Thousand Currents to create “an investment fund that provided both economic prosperity and wellbeing for their communities.” For Thousand Currents, a public foundation that supports grassroot organizations in the Global South, it was a departure from their traditional funding model, which provided organizations with multi-year general operating support. It was also a tall order. How could an impact fund meet the needs of their grassroots partners - organizations led by women, youth and indigenous peoples throughout Asia, Africa and Latin America - as well as U.S. based investors? To do this right, Thousand Current knew they were going to need some help.

Over the next year and half, Thousand Currents worked with community partners to form an investment fund that was unlike anything else in the field. To formalize the fund and create a legal framework for it, Thousand Currents and its partners were supported by Blue Dot Advocates, a Colorado-based law firm that specializes in impact investing and social enterprise law. Over the course of a few years, with Blue Dot’s support, Thousand Currents co-created the Buen Vivir Fund, alongside ten grassroots partners and a cohort of eight seed investors. Today, the $1 million fund is operational and has funded nine projects, using an integrated approach that blends $90,000 in loans with $15,000 in capacity-building grants per project.

For Thousand Currents, Blue Dot provided services far beyond what is generally expected of a traditional law firm or investment advisor, engaging in on-going dialogue and helping to structure the fund itself as well as the terms for each project investment as needed. In doing so, Blue Dot operated as a different, and often less understood service provider in the impact investing field: a strategic consultant.

The Basics: What is a Strategic Consultant Anyway?

A strategic consultant is any specialist who advises a foundation on a high-level mission investing strategy. They might also provide tailored educational programming for a board and staff or privately work through group dynamic challenges. Strategic consultants serve as the trail guide when considering mission related investing, helping the foundation’s leadership to understand the full spectrum of mission related investment approaches, ever-evolving industry terminology and stakeholders, and strategies for working with an investment advisor. Strategic consultants may also provide advice on specific investments and help to identify investment opportunities, but in their capacity as a strategic consultant, do not manage assets on behalf of their clients.

Strategic consultants often get confused with, or overshadowed by investment consultants, especially Registered Investment Advisors (RIA) who generally manage foundations’ assets and act as fiduciaries. Perhaps this is because many RIAs and other credentialed investment managers provide strategic consulting services as part of their client portfolio management. However, a growing number of foundations are seeking the support of discreet service providers that specialize in a specific aspect of impact investing and provide un-biased (think: not selling additional services or pushing a specific investment product) guidance.

Finding The Right Strategic Consultant: A Webinar

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“We all long to have one-stop shopping and hire a single advisory firm to get everything done. But having that independent expertise is critical to making inroads with our impact investing.”

– Anne Stetson, Trustee, John Merck Fund (moderator)

 

To clarify the range of services that strategic consultants provide impact investing institutions, Confluence recently hosted a webinar featuring three foundations who recently used strategic consultants for their mission investing programs. The webinar was moderated by Anne Stetson, Trustee of the John Merck Fund, and featured Rebekah Saul Butler, Co-Executive Director of Grove Foundation, Loe Marcoline, Executive Director of Womadix Fund, and Rajiv Khanna, Director of Philanthropic Partnerships at Thousand Current. Panelists shared how they identified, vetted and partnered with their respective consultants to illuminate the process by which strategic consults can help design and implement innovative mission investing strategies.

The webinar also highlighted Confluence Philanthropy’s newly published resource guide: Finding Your Way to the Right Strategic Consultant, which is designed to help define the role of strategic consultants in impact investing and support foundations in finding the right consultant for their needs. The guide also initially featured a dozen leading consultants in the field, including the three highlighted in the webinar, and will continue to be updated.

Building a Partnership

As Rajiv shared, it was important to Thousand Currents that their consultant be creative, agile, mission aligned and with global experience setting up impact funds. They also recognized the need for legal counsel, hence their decision to work with a law office. However, every client-consultant relationship in unique.

Rebekah Saul Butler, Co-Executive Director of the Grove Foundation, outlined a very different approach to working with strategic consultant, Julia Sze. The Grove Foundation, a private foundation based in Los Altos, California, is focused on civic engagement, the environment, reproductive health, immigrants and building a social safety net. A few years ago, the foundation decided to align their corpus with their mission. However, for a spend-down foundation, they also wanted to move quickly.

What Grove knew: They wanted to continue to manage investments internally so wanted to build staff capacity rather than find an investment advisor. They wanted someone with extensive mission related investing experience. And they wanted to move quickly.

This was where Julia Sze, who had previously worked with Grove as the Director of Impact investing at Arabella Advisors, came in. In 2016, now an independent consultant, Julia worked with Grove in two swift phases. The first focused on building a new investment policy statement (IPS), establishing an asset allocation strategy, and creating a decision-making framework. With the new IPS in place, the second phase focused on implementation, with Julia facilitating meetings between Grove and investment managers and fine tuning their investment criteria. Julia then continued to work with the Grove team, as needed, to diligence specific investments.

Rebekah and her team had interviewed four different consultants and settled on Julia for several reasons. First, she was able to hit the ground running, meeting Rebekah and her colleague, who both had a degree of finance experience, where they were. Second, she was a great coach and able to explain important strategy components along the way. Third, Julia was able to provide ad-hoc support and structure a flexible work plan.

These three things combined with Julia’s deep expertise and connections in the field, made her the clear choice. In the end, Julia was able to not only help create a viable investment strategy, but co-authored, alongside Rebekah, a report outlining Grove’s impact investing journey, in an effort to provide a resource guide for other like-minded foundations.

Loe Marcoline, Executive Director of Womadix Fund, provided yet another example of a client-consultant engagement. The Womadix Fund was created in 2009 to support women and girls who act as promoters of peace. They focus on communities in Africa as well as those in Mineapolis and New Mexico, where foundation staff are based. As a small foundation, they were interested in leveraging more assets to support their mission and recently decided to combine impact investments with their grantmaking strategy.

As newcomers to impact investing, the Womadix team wanted to learn the basics, build their own capacity, and then have ad-hoc support when needed going forward. Womadix began working with Susan Hammel, Founder of Cogent Consulting, who is based in Minneapolis. Susan first led Womadix through an impact investing retreat, which helped to get the team on the same page about their impact priorities and work through “creative tensions” with regard to possible investment strategies. Over the course of the next year, Susan then helped Womadix to draft and adopt a new IPS, which required that she work closely with the Fund’s financial advisor, and provide due diligence various PRI investment opportunities. With Susan’s support, Womadix has diligenced many opportunities and has made a few choice investments in the form of direct equity, a fund of funds, a seed stage venture capital fund, and a concessionary loan.

Womadix enjoyed the opportunity to work with Susan first on a 6-mont retainer for broad based support and later on a per project basis. This was particularly valuable for due diligence support but also helped Loe and her colleagues “learn by doing.”

Moving at the Speed of Trust

When asked what difficulties the panelists experienced when working with their strategic consultants, Rebekah, Loe and Rajiv all had trouble coming up with an answer. All three panelists were somewhat surprised by how positive they felt about their partnership.  As Rebekah put it, “It’s gone surprisingly well. In many ways, it’s exceeded our expectations.”

However, the pace at which each organization worked with their consultant, and how they involved them in their on-going work, differed. While Grove was ready to jump in and move quickly, Thousand Currents knew they were looking to engage a consultant “over the long haul.” Not only did Thousand Currents need Blue Dot to help form the fund (which is a separate LLC owned by a member assembly and managed and operated by Thousand Currents), they needed them to provide ongoing support to discreet projects. Moreover, the foundation’s inclusive decision-making process slowed progress and put the Fund’s expected launch date behind schedule. As Rajiv so elegantly pointed out, “because everything we do is long-term relationship and trust based, it was very important to build on the foundation of trust and relationships and move at the speed of trust.”

Building off of this point, Loe pointed to the team retreat Susan had crafted for Womadix as an incredibly helpful tool to build trust. Susan was also able to build trust with Womadix’ advisor because, while she is a certified financial analyst and fluent in the more technical aspects of mission investing, she is not an RIA and therefore, did not pose a threat. She was able to work in a non-competitive way with their advisor while also being mindful of fiduciary duty.

Rebekah thought about trust as a form of understanding between her and her consultant. For Grove, it was easy to transmit their mission while the more difficult piece to get right was the cultural fit. Finding a consultant who not only understood how Grove operated internally, but worked in a similar way, was paramount.

To listen to a recording of this webinar or to receive a copy of Confluence Philanthropy’s  resources guide: Finding The Right Strategic Consultant, contact Elizabeth Gilbert at elizabeth(at)confluencephilathropy(dot)org.


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