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The New York Foundation’s (NYF) Executive Director Rickke Mananzala and Board Treasurer George Suttles sat down with Kim Kastorff, Director of Kimpacto (and on behalf of Community Capital Advisors) to discuss how the foundation is aligning its investments with its mission and values – and the partnerships it sought out to do so; including hiring a Black-owned-and-founded investment advisor.
NYF is a private foundation, with a history dating back to 1909. Currently, it supports grassroots organizing and movement building for racial, economic, gender and climate justice in New York City. The foundation holds an average of $60 million in its endowment and distributed nearly $4 million in grants last year.
Below is part one of the interview where we discuss the NYF’s approach and philosophy to mission-aligned investing then show how they are building mission and values alignment through partnerships.
Check out part two of the interview: “New York Foundation: Advice for Mission-Aligned Investors” or watch the video of the full interview.
The foundation’s approach and philosophy to mission-aligned investing
CCA: Perhaps you could give us an overview of the New York Foundation?
Rickke: The New York Foundation supports grassroots organizing and movement building for racial, economic, gender and climate justice in New York City. We focus on supporting groups that have been historically overlooked and under-resourced by philanthropy, especially BIPOC-led (i.e. Black and Indigenous people of color) organizations, trans-led organizations, and start-up groups. We are also often the first funder to a lot of organizations – we’re there when they are just getting started, bringing their communities together, and forming an organization to do their work. We’re proud to see that many institutions the foundation first funded decades ago are now strong organizations, working both in their neighborhoods, city-wide, and even state-wide to advance justice.
As George has alluded to also, our ability as a foundation to be a grantmaker is one thing we do, but that’s such a small portion of the resources that we’re putting out into the communities. You ask about our foundation’s size, and I think you’re referring to our endowment. We’re small relative to other private foundations. Our endowment has ranged in size between $40 million to $100 million, but we have on average about a $60 million endowment. Under George’s leadership and other Investment Committee members and foundation staff, we have really been examining more recently: how can we deploy all of our capital, not just our grantmaking, to be in alignment with our mission and values?
George: Thanks Rickke. It’s important to also acknowledge the leadership within and around the foundation. This isn’t something Rickke and I woke up one day and said “this has to happen.” We actually took the work of others who really cared about this and said, how can we carry this a few steps further? Our investment committee started to ask if there was an opportunity to begin to explore leveraging the other 90-95% of our endowment for good, in a values-aligned way.
The New York Foundation prides itself on partnership, being community-based and place-based, and so the same is true for our investment strategy. We need a partner that understands social justice-oriented values alignment investment strategies in a way where we can actually look to them for leadership. We shouldn’t be cobbling together values-aligned strategies as a committee on the side of our desks.
So that actually was the first step in our process, to put out an RFP (Request for Proposals) and see what other types of investment management or asset management partnerships are out there. That was our first transformative “a-ha” moment from a process standpoint. The concept was there, but the first real step was to identify a partner.
CCA: Do you feel that your approach has been, or will be, cutting edge, both on the grantmaking and also the investment side? Did you receive any pushback since you were tackling very serious issues and systemic problems, and as well trying to do so in a new and innovative way?
Rickke: I wouldn’t really call our investment work cutting edge. George captures this really well when he tells our story. We are often given the benefit of the doubt because of our grantmaking, which we’ve done for a long time and have done some things before other funders like supporting racial justice, being the first funder for groups that are often marginalized from philanthropy, and providing general operating support. But we are at a different stage with our investment process than we are with our grantmaking. I think it’s really important for us to be honest about that, and to share that we’re learning from other foundations that have been doing this a lot longer than us like Jessie Smith Noyes, like General Services, like Nathan Cummings, and so many other foundations. We’re entering in with a lot of humility. Yes, we want to shake some things up. We want to learn from what folks are doing. We want to chart some new paths on our own, which we are excited to talk a little bit about today. A lot of that has to do with building alignment internally – among the board and staff, the groups we support, and of course with a partner like CCA, which we’ll talk about their integral role to help get us to this point.
I’ll turn to George because we worked together to initiate this process of alignment building with the board and staff over the past couple years.
George: I want to underscore one of the very important points that Rickke lifted up, and it’s that benefit of the doubt piece. In the field, the New York Foundation is seen as social justice-oriented, progressive, and community-minded in the way we partner with our grantees and are vocal about the issues that we care about. So people often attribute the same values-alignment to our investments.
We understood that we have to do this work because it is expected of us, and to continue to reap the benefits of the doubt in a positive way felt disingenuous. We really care about our integrity in that regard. This is important work that we have to embark on.
Also, this values-aligned investment work fits into questions around spend down or perpetuity. There was a lot of myth busting that we needed to do to get to a shared understanding about the type of work we were going to embark on. I wouldn’t say there was pushback, but there were a lot of questions. Like, if we do values-aligned investment, are we going to concede in our returns and have to spend down and no longer exist? So there were a lot of questions to grapple with and get to a really good place for our community to say that this makes a lot of sense and this is fundamentally who we are.
We just had to make sure that everyone understood why we were approaching this the way we were approaching it, and why the time was now, and there were both propositions to be had. We didn’t have to make these urgent binary decisions, like if you do values alignment, you are going to have to spend down. We are going to do values alignment in a thoughtful way that will lend itself to perpetuity.
We have a great board, a great staff, a great community of grantees and leaders, and a great investment committee that said let’s focus on answering these questions together. So, I just really appreciate everyone in our community for supporting that effort and being all hands on deck.
Building mission and values alignment through partnerships
CCA: Sounds like there was a lot of dialogue internally at the New York Foundation, and you mentioned working with others outside of the foundation to get advice and guidance, for example CCA. Perhaps you could tell us a bit about your engagement with CCA, and also why did you decide to seek outside help?
Rickke: George and I often laugh about how we initially were going to lead the Request for Proposals (RFP) search process on our own. But thanks to the great advice from one of our colleagues, Dimple Abichandani, from the General Services Foundation at the time, we decided to hire someone to provide leadership and thought partnership, while NYF coordinated and remained engaged throughout the process.
That’s where CCA came in, and our partnership with Bert and Marc, and why that was so integral. As George said, a lot of their role was not just how to execute the steps of the search, but also setting up a process that helps us first build alignment and clarity among all the stakeholders (like the investment committee and the staff), and then the content of the RFP, how to identify prospective advisors to interview, and feel good about our decision making process.
Of course the outcome was important. We have a fantastic new investment partner, who we will talk about in a moment. But beyond that, like George said, this was an opportunity to build internal alignment and think about how our investments can feel more like our grantmaking.
Having a partner like Bert and CCA helped us identify the folks to get us to that point. It was also an opportunity to engage more than just the traditional players, which Bert excelled at. Our new investment partner is absolutely on board with our new way of thinking and not just around our investments, but how we engage beyond the traditional players in the investment process.
George: I’ll also lift up that our investment committee is mostly POC (people of color) who are highly skilled investment, community organizing, and impact assessment professionals who brought their sensibilities, skill sets, and expertise to this process. I don’t know if there are private foundations and investment committees that look like ours, but maybe they ought to.
In addition to all the above, I’m proud that our committee has a shared understanding of where we need to do our work. It’s not just about their diversity, it’s about the shared understanding of the purposeful work that we’re all engaged in together—a large part of which was around our RFP process.
That’s why we are delighted to announce our dynamic investment partnership with Bivium-Westfuller, the joint venture between two Black-owned, Black-founded investment management firms that came together to offer OCIO (Outsourced Chief Investment Officer) services to non-profit institutional investors. On top of having strong values alignment, they are incredibly savvy, sophisticated institutional investors. We also love that they are in the trenches with us doing this work. If you look at their board service and their volunteer and philanthropic efforts, both as a firm and as individuals who comprise the leadership of the firm, they understand the kind of work we’re doing.
Bivium-Westfuller was exactly the type of leadership we were looking for, and we’re thankful for Bert and Marc’s help to get us to this really good and exciting place.
This interview was edited for length and clarity by Maggie Colgan, Communications Manager (New York Foundation) and Candice Wynter (CW Consulting).
February 23, 2023
00:00 - Introductions
03:38 - Overview of NYF
09:00 - Leveraging the benefit of the doubt and learning from established foundations
13:00 - Myth-busting to reach a shared understanding internally
16:00 - Engaging with Community Capital Advisors
18:00 - Unique strengths of the current investment committee
19:40 - Investment partnership with Vivian West Fuller
20:52 - New approach to diversity, the Investment Committee, and funds
22:46 - Implementing broader intersectional racial equity work
25:00 - Investment themes and key initiatives for the future
31:00 - Biggest challenges NYF faced and advice to other foundations shifting their impact investing strategy
Justice Funders “Just Transition Investment Framework”
Center for Economic Democracy’s “Social Movement Investing Framework"
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