Impact Career Series : Why Community Development Financial Institutions are a good place to start
The term “impact investing” was coined just a few short years ago with the formation of the Global Impact Investing Network. Millennials are playing an important role in the growth of the impact investing industry, and increasingly more 20- and 30-year olds are looking for careers in the field. However, many young professionals looking to start their careers or transition into the impact investing field are discouraged by the limited number of opportunities.
Community Development Financial Institutions (CDFIs), which have a long history of investing in hard to reach, typically low-income communities, seem to be overlooked by these same folks seeking jobs in the impact investing industry. One explanation could be a narrow interpretation of impact investing reserved for a small number of private equity organizations that are primarily investing in emerging markets. For those who are truly interested in using finance as a tool to create social value, working for a CDFI represents an opportunity to make an immediate impact, learn financial skills from experienced professionals in a proven industry, and even rise in the ranks.
A CDFI—as certified by the CDFI Fund within the U.S. Treasury—is a financing entity whose primary mission is to promote community development. At least 60 percent of a CDFI’s activities must provide financial products and services to a “Target Market,” defined as a region where the poverty rate is at least 20 percent, unemployment rate is 1.5 times the national average, and/or there is lack of adequate access to capital and denial of credit. CDFIs are some of the earliest impact investing entities — the financing they provide in historically underserved areas is a prime example of successful double bottom line investing.
CDFIs operating in the United States serve the diverse financing needs of many sectors, including affordable housing, microenterprise, small and growing businesses, education (e.g. charter schools) and health care (e.g. Federally Qualified Health care Centers). While impact is inherent to the definition of CDFIs, the range of issues they address is virtually limitless, providing the opportunity for CDFI professionals to specialize in the specific cause that inspires them most.
At Calvert Foundation, I am fortunate to have some of the best role models in the industry. Lisa Hall, President and CEO, has over 23 years of investing experience, including six at Calvert Foundation as chief lending officer. Eliza Erikson, former chief lending officer at Calvert Foundation, is currently leading the Latin American investment strategy for Omidyar Network. Like Erikson, many successful professionals in the CDFI industry are moving from CDFIs to other impact investing organizations because their experience is highly valuable in other mission-aligned entities. As a woman, I am encouraged by the many knowledgeable female leaders in the industry. Having transitioned from a job on Wall Street, I find the CDFI industry equally rigorous, but with a culture that reflects the important social goals we aim to achieve.
The opportunity for young professionals to rise in the ranks of CDFIs coincides with a real need. Effective succession planning and an infusion of new talent are critical, especially for the many CDFIs who have had the same leaders since their founding. As the market evolves, innovative thinkers are needed to find ways to bring safe financial services to low income families. The Lend for America Fellowship is one example of an initiative created to meet the demand for a new wave of talented leadership in the near term. The program places undergraduate candidates with CDFIs for summer internships, anticipating that they launch local CDFIs when they return to their campuses. Last year, which was the second year of the program, more 200 applications were received for six spots. These young people seem to be catching on to the meaningful career opportunities CDFIs present.
If you are exploring a career in impact investing, I highly recommend working for a CDFI. Not only will you be “on the ground” and able to see the impact of your work first hand, you will also learn essential financial skills from respected managers and leaders in the field with the opportunity to build a meaningful, successful career. Or, you could start your own CDFI like Rohan Matthew who, at the age of 20, launched The Intersect Fund. In short, if you are interested in a career in impact investing, the CDFI industry offers the impact, the leadership, and the challenge alongside the opportunity to help those in need in local communities.