Put Those Suits in Boots!
Slow Money. Sounds like an investor’s nightmare. Not if you’re a farmer, who regularly deals with Nature’s slower pace and purpose, and needs resources from people who understand that real food doesn’t grow on an iFarm. It takes time and money, the old-fashioned ingredients. Recently, a group known as Slow Money Northwest has made funds available to support projects in our region that promote sustainable agriculture and improved human health. The February 28, 2014 deadline to apply is just around the corner, so don’t delay.
Slow Money is a national non-profit organization founded by Woody Tasch, who wrote a book by the same name. The goal of both is to encourage people to reformulate their idea of a ‘smart’ investment to include social and environmental returns, not just financial gains, when selecting the best place to put their money. This idea is also known as true cost accounting for agriculture, a practice promoted by Prince Charles of Wales. If a desire exists for businesses to behave differently, society must put their money where their mouth is. That is quite literally what Slow Money aims to do.
Though he lives in Colorado, Tasch has a connection to Spokane and the Community Building neighborhood. He visited Spokane in 2009 to speak at the ground-breaking for Main Market Co-op. He shared
how that enterprise was just the type that Slow Money would want to consider backing once the idea of “investing as if food, farms, and fertility mattered” met up with enough like-minded individuals to fund a micro-financing network, a network he was working to coalesce by igniting regional Slow Money groups. His stop here was part of a nationwide book tour and subsequent national Gathering to till the fields of micro-lending.
Fast forward to Slow Money Northwest 2014 and its Director, Tim Crosby, a long-time sustainable agriculture supporter, activist, networker and consultant in the Seattle area. He straightaway believed in the concept of Slow Money, and put considerable time and effort into bringing a regional version of it to life here in Washington State. The goal is to “match businesses seeking investment with investors seeking growth in the sustainable food system, through accredited investor meetings, creative financing, and program related investment strategies.” In other words, Slow Money Northwest is making dollars available to start and/or strengthen sustainable food related businesses in our area.
The group plans to distribute amounts between $25,000 to $250,000 to up to five selected applicants in Washington and Oregon that “improve measures of health, social equity, family wage employment, and rural community resilience.” This kind of leverage financing doesn’t come along often, so readers are encouraged to check it out. The application can be accessed on the Slow Money Northwest web site.
A common Spokanite saying – for some a grouse and others a local charm – is that the area seems to drag 10-20 years behind. Usually, the reference means behind Seattle and things that are new and happening in other places. It’s exciting to think that this financing opportunity puts Eastern Washington at the forefront of the action with the rest of the country and in fact, the growing international call for more sustainable food, agriculture and investments.
In December 2013, the Sustainable Food Trust, a global non-profit based in the U.K., hosted a conference focused the “True Cost of Food.” This compelling collection of speaker excerpts presents concepts ranging from a “virtuous cycle of agriculture” to “changing the DNA of companies” as part of the path forward.
Last week at the World Economics Forum in Switzerland, the United Nations’ secretary general Ban Ki-moon shared his increasingly consistent message that, “First, we need investors, banks and other financial service providers to increase finance flows into low-carbon energy and climate-resilient infrastructure… (and then) investors and banks should work to increase transparency regarding greenhouse gas emissions from the assets and businesses that they finance.”
At the exact same time the U.N. talked about the connection between money and ecology, notable organic and sustainable farmers from the U.S. and Canada were gathered in California to harvest their collective and extensive knowledge of farming methods. These “agrarian elders… adhere to a broader political and ecological ethos that includes attention to wildlife, soil, education and community. For most of them, the bottom line has never been their bottom line.” This is exactly the direction Slow Money has been moving with food and agriculture funding.
Since 2010, U.S. Slow Money chapters have raised $30 million, and invested in 221 small food enterprises. Now the movement is international, with a recent $20,000 loan to a solar dairy in Switzerland. The funding available now through Slow Money Northwest is the first of its kind in our area, providing access for local sustainable food and agriculture interests to the join the present-day food revolution.
This regional opportunity is officially available through a coalition called the Cascadia Foodshed Funding Project (the Project), which Slow Money Northwest convened to get the ball rolling. Spokane-based Empire Health Foundation is one of the Project’s initial contributors. Based on the involvement of the Foundation, and their
own vision to “transform (their) seven counties into the state’s healthiest region,” Eastern Washington is one of the five priority areas the group is targeting to infuse resources that spur activity and projects that make a difference in our region’s food system, and ultimately the health of the people who live here. These are two of the many great reasons to review the application, and see if your work might eventually add the kind of value that prompts the next generation of elders.
To be clear, what Slow Money Northwest / the Project is offering are not traditional non-profit grants for programmatic work. The intent is to provide social enterprises backing through a variety of mechanisms – equity, loans, and revenue-based financing – to use as leverage to obtain additional sources. The resources are intended to help good ideas in the Project focus areas come to life, those with more community-oriented benefits that may take a bit longer to get financially stable than traditional bank financing tolerates. Like other financing, the support will have to be paid back. The terms of the payback are where things get interesting. Money does not stand alone as the measure of success or return on investment (ROI). Environmental and social returns are equally important, and factored into the payback period. Projects are likely to have varying lengths of time to return the principal and interest based on the additional positive impacts of the work accomplished, or any possible negatives. For instance, if the business vastly improved water quality in a certain community, the financial terms might be more favorable than for a business that created several more jobs with a locally processed food, but one that needed to be packaged and shipped great distances, which could be considered a negative.
Slow Money Northwest would ideally like to have an applicant pool of 40-50 proposals, and to date, only a couple have been received. Crosby said there are socially minded investors out there just waiting to see a real demand for resources of this kind, coupled with a formal process that vets the proposals. These triple-bottom-line investors value putting resources into business models designed to yield positive results for people, planet and profit. Since the Dow Jones and Bank of America don’t operate on those metrics, it can be difficult as an investor to ferret out the best ideas. Slow Money Northwest and the Project partners want to provide that information, spotlighting leaders and viable enterprises that realize success is not measured just by the bottom line, and recognize it’s all on the line.
Eastern Washington food and health related businesses have an amazing chance to obtain resources that will help them succeed. Similar to the philosophy of the Community Building, this Project places a high value on relationships and recognizes social capital and environmental capital contribute as much or more to the health of our planet as fiscal capital. Since money can be an effective tool for change, Slow Money Northwest promotes investing in the environment and one another, not just business as usual.