Ours to Own: Enabling Citizens to Invest in Their City

As part of the fourth meeting of Clinton Global Initiative America, a foundation launches a new crowd-funding initiative – Ours To Own.

Like many people working in financial services these days, I have a tough time explaining what I do to my parents and peers. Not only do most people consider finance an arcane language, but our industry has increasingly garnered a bad rap, due to scandal and lack of transparency. We may be enjoying a bull market, but nearly every day I find a new article that indicates that our financial system is slipping further and further away from the creation of tangible value.

But from where I sit, as the president and CEO of a nonprofit financial institution, I see a much different picture of the value of our financial markets. For example, I work closely with the leaders of community development financial institutions (CDFIs), the unsung heroes of our nation’s financial system. They provide capital to create the backbone of communities across the US – financing schools, community centers, health clinics, affordable and workforce housing units, small businesses, and other pillars of American life.

CDFIs have inspiring stories and meticulous data about the deep local value they are creating when they increase access to the financial markets for the underserved or overlooked. Yet it’s unfortunate that they cannot source funds sustainably from the communities where they work. As a result, their business models are vulnerable to legislative and macroeconomic shifts at the national level, limiting their ability to meet community needs when these needs are at their highest.

So why is there such wide disconnect between the national perception of the financial markets and the important work happening in local communities? And how can we bring these two worlds closer together? At Calvert Foundation, we live at this intersection of the capital markets and community finance, and we see it as our mandate to bridge this widening gap by rethinking how our capital system allocates resources. We sit in this place largely due to a unique tool at our disposal, the Community Investment Note: a fixed-income product that is accessible to everyday individuals across America and whose proceeds are deployed into underserved communities.

We have issued this product for nearly 20 years, taking arduous steps throughout the past two decades to ensure its accessibility through multiple channels, adapt to increasingly complex regulatory environments and conservative guidance on asset management, and create lower barriers to entry. During this time we’ve raised nearly $1 billion from investors and have repaid principal and interest to over 13,000 investors. But up until this point, we have failed to fully leverage the power of this tool and its ability to channel a new source of private, democratically sourced capital to the issues or communities that need it the most.

That’s why today, as part of the fourth meeting of Clinton Global Initiative America, we’re launching a new campaign – Ours To Own– a national effort that allows individual citizens to channel a portion of their assets to create the change they want to see in their hometown, starting in CGI America’s host city of Denver as well as the Twin Cities. Through this investment, available for as little as $20 online– we hope to increase the flow of capital into local economies, thereby creating equitable opportunity for our friends, family, neighbors, and fellow citizens. We believe this will increase community ownership, participation, and understanding of the complex issues that face American cities today, while also expanding the resources available to address them.

We feel that the American people are uniquely ready to start having this important conversation about the connection between personal assets and local value at a much greater scale. We have seen endless examples of American ingenuity at the local level, as technology and communication have continued to transform our daily lives.

We’ve seen the rapid growth of the sharing economy, where neighbors, or even strangers, will share a ride or a home in order to extract greater value from limited urban resources.

We’ve seen the rise of crowdfunding donations give birth to new classes of community participants who actively support their corner café, buy a brick to help build a new community center, or take a chance on an indie artist.

We’ve seen local activism and organizing enter a new era, as people leverage social media to change legislation, sway hearts – and elect a President.

Everyday Americans are hungry for ways to channel their energy, ideas, and resources towards building a better future for themselves and their communities. I believe that no matter what’s happening on Wall Street, small amounts of money purposefully pooled together by individuals on Main Street can create tangible and long-lasting change.

Today on stage at Clinton Global Initiative America, we made a commitment to bring Ours to Own to five cities by the end of 2015, and we hope this is just the beginning. Speaking of new beginnings, I now have a better answer for my parents and peers (and for myself) when the question comes up about what I do. I can genuinely say that through a new commitment, I’m helping to raise everyday Americans’ awareness about what their money is doing – and what it can do better – to improve their place in the world around them.

Jenn Pryce brings nearly 20 years of finance and community development work to her role as the President and CEO of Calvert Foundation.

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