Throughout this article series, it has been fascinating and encouraging to read the authors’ reflections on the importance of putting racial equity at the center of the impact investing movement—and the most effective ways of doing so at this pivotal moment. In preparing our contribution, we have been thinking about how the Ford Foundation’s use of impact investing tools, and our work on racial equity, have evolved over the past half-century, and how that history informs our path today.
At the height of the United States Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s, the Ford Foundation was looking for new ways to invest its resources in marginalized communities. Already, it had used grants to support individual leaders and institutions—funding research and building fields like public interest law—but it was no secret that it would need to do more to address the tangled root causes of racial inequality. In fact, the national director of the Congress of Racial Equality, Floyd McKissick, challenged Ford Foundation Vice President Mac Lowry to consider funding disparity. One could, as he put it, “get very irritated with foundations, which give $25,000 to a man to write a book about the problems of the people who are trying to organize these communities, but then refuse to give a nickel to those people who are actually fighting the problems.”
The comment typified a larger, ongoing conversation about how a foundation like Ford could invest its capital in the people and communities closest to social problems. By 1968, spurred on by such critiques and the urgency of advancing racial equity, the foundation had helped pioneer an innovative tool intended to unlock new philanthropic resources: program-related investments (PRIs). Early on, the foundation committed $10 million to PRIs, and among the first initiatives was Rev. Leon Sullivan’s Progress Plaza, the first shopping center in the United States owned and run by African Americans. By directing capital to communities and entrepreneurs long denied it, PRIs could complement the foundation’s broader strategy for economic empowerment, racial equity, and social justice.
In the 50 years since the development of PRIs, the Ford Foundation’s fight for racial equity and our use of new impact investing tools have gone hand in hand. As time has passed and tools and circumstances have changed, we’ve continuously looked for new ways to answer a version of that original question: How do we get more capital to the people and communities who truly need it?