21 Apr Northern Forest Center
Interview with Rob Riley, President of Northern Forest Center
Celina Adams, a colleague from the Just Economy Institute (formerly RSF Social Finance Integrated Capital Investing Institute fellow) and fellow financial activist introduced me to the Northern Forest Center and its plan to launch the Northern Forest Fund. This fund seeks to leverage integrated capital to strengthen rural communities who have been crippled by extractive economics. As Chair of the Board, she volunteers her time as an advocate and champion for regenerative local economies and vibrant social networks. Through her business, Celina Adams Consulting, she advises individuals, foundations, businesses, and nonprofit organizations to do the most good with their capital through impact investing, social enterprise, and philanthropy. Learn more at https://www.celinaadams.com/.
Jen: What is the purpose of your fund?
Rob: In an era when economic transition has excluded many rural places, the Northern Forest Center is helping communities tackle the fundamental challenge of diversifying their economy and attracting and retaining young people. While there are jobs available, communities lack the amenities younger people are seeking. The Northern Forest Fund launched in October 2020 to address this gap and allows us to deploy integrated capital in a suite of traditionally undercapitalized projects.
Jen: How are your investment funds catalytic in a way that is different from other funds?
Rob: We have a deep commitment to local partnerships and agency. Working with diverse local stakeholders, we identify priorities and implement programs that connect economy, community and environment to accelerate inclusive prosperity. We are not intermediary lenders; we raise and deploy investment and philanthropic capital to coordinated and complementary projects. Our existing efforts have yielded a 2:1 leverage of other capital. No other non-profit brings this type of integrated capital for comprehensive, place-based programming and long-term commitments to Northern Forest communities.
Jen: How do you describe the kind of non-financial returns the fund offers?
Rob: We prioritize and track a set of quantifiable indicators that reflect progress toward a more resilient community. Some, such as property values, increased school enrollment, and population growth, result directly from our investments. Others, such as expanded outdoor recreation trails, community pride, positive health measures, and strong area child-care, reflect broader community resiliency. These outcomes create a ripple effect that builds on itself to renew the pride, purpose and vitality of our communities.
Jen: Can you describe how you use integrated capital to do your work?
Rob: Taking a holistic approach, the Center’s team deploys investment capital to redevelop downtown residential and commercial properties while simultaneously deploying a broad suite of grant-funded programming to expand broadband, build out recreational trails, attract new businesses and improve downtown infrastructure. Collectively, these funds bring the necessary resources to fund catalytic change while mitigating risk.
Jen: How do you address racial justice, income inequality, and/or gender justice through your products and services?
Rob: We believe in widely shared opportunities and collaborate to secure community benefits rooted in the interdependence of a vibrant economy, healthy ecosystem and an equitable society. We are a learning organization and seek to create new conversations in the community and engage diverse perspectives to generate creative solutions and help prepare the Northern Forest for a changing world. The Northern Forest fund seeks to build local capacity, expand pathways to economic independence, build pride in community and foster thriving, inclusive communities.
Jen: What does a foundation or investor need to understand in order to invest in transformational businesses?
Rob: Impact investing does not have to be an abstract, stock market-driven opportunity. Done well, it can generate real benefits in specific communities while providing a financial return to investors. Impact investors also need to understand that an impact investment ‘market-rate’ is based on the market in which that investment is made. Comparing impact investment financial returns to standard indexes is a false construct. Investors must value the community dividends from their investment at least as much as they value the economic return.
Jen: What do you tell people who think your fund is risky?
Rob: The Northern Forest Fund is built on 20+ years of organizational experience, relationships and programs in the region. Our integrated capital approach places investment dollars in targeted real estate redevelopment projects, flanked by philanthropic funds and supportive programs that build the marketing into the project. Rental properties are more successful when “third spaces,” recreation trails, broadband service, job and career opportunities, and overall community momentum are underway. These activities then become self-generating as younger people stay and move to the community seeking to participate in the renaissance underway.
|Investment thesis / What is your rationale for your approach to investing?||Using integrated capital, we invest in holistic community-based projects including downtown property redevelopment, broadband, recreation trails, business development and community capacity that attract and retain younger people and foster resilient rural communities.|
|Geography||Northeast United States, New York, Vermont, New Hampshire, Maine|
|# of Investments||7|
|Book||Blue Latitudes: Boldly Going Where Captain Cook Has Gone Before (Tony Horwitz)|
|Song||Genius (Sia, Diplo, Labrinth)|
|Podcast or streaming program||Men in Blazers (English Premier Soccer)|