During a recent virtual panel discussion about impact investing and the need to make a difference, Alabama Power Foundation President Myla Calhoun said companies and foundations must make their money count.
“One of the things we have been thinking about is the difference between feeling good and doing good,” she said. “Very often at corporate philanthropic foundations, it’s, ‘We do this and we can all feel better.’ I want to feel better, but in a sustained way, I need to do better. We’re not going to grant ourselves out of this. We will need to use our assets to activate the social change that I think will be necessary to propel us forward.”
Calhoun said Alabama Power was founded on the premise that “What’s good for Alabama is good for the company.” That means that although Alabama Power is first and foremost an electric utility, it’s also dedicated to doing its part to make life better for the communities it serves.
To that end, the Alabama Power Foundation, the company’s philanthropic arm, has been leading the way in leveraging partnerships focused on effecting change and making an impact across the state, Calhoun added. These impact investments are made with the intention of generating positive, measurable social and cultural impact alongside a financial return.
“We’re excited to introduce the idea of impact investing both here at the company and in the broader investing community,” she said. “We have been convening groups of funders to talk about opportunities that we thought would move the needle. We are making it possible for them to engage in new ways to use their assets to make change really powerful.”
Because of its leadership in Alabama’s investor community and its efforts to make change, the foundation is featured in a new handbook, unveiled by Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors (RPA) during a virtual event June 25. The “Impact Investing Handbook: An Implementation Guide for Practitioners” includes the latest tools, frameworks and best practices for creating an impact.
During the event, Calhoun was a featured presenter on a panel that included handbook co-authors, Patrick Briaud, of RPA, and Steven Godeke, of Godeke Consulting, along with leaders at the Ford and Grove foundations, and the Aragona family office. They discussed how their organizations are making systemic changes in areas such as COVID-19 response and social injustice.
Godeke and Briaud told the audience of corporate and private foundation leaders and other investors how they can use the handbook as a roadmap to guide them as they decide how to channel their assets.
“The mission of impact investing is very clear,” Godeke said. “We need to deploy capital to take on these systemic challenges. The systems don’t correct themselves. We are trying to lay a pathway for individuals, family foundations and others to help them engage and shift their assets.”
Briaud said the key is how to get the best bang for the buck when it comes to making an impact.
“To me, the biggest message is that all investments have impact,” Briaud said. “There’s a lot of news coverage and a lot of interest in different issues. How do you try to tailor your impact investing to what you care about? In a book format, we are trying to help owners move their investment portfolio to action.”
Briaud said impact investing has grown from a niche industry to a diverse network of investors and intermediaries working to make a difference.
“This one handbook will not change the world, but the ideas in it will help change things,” he said. “Your everyday wealth managers will demand a product that has impact. You have to have a clear sense of how to develop a plan for responsibly shifting your assets to make that happen.”
The Alabama Power Foundation is highlighted in the handbook as an organization that has successfully made that shift to an impact-driven organization. Along with identifying project opportunities, it is sharing resources, due diligence and project leads with peers to help empower them to make investments of their own.
The foundation made its first social impact investment in April 2019 with a loan to Pack Health, a Birmingham-based company that provides digital health coaching to people suffering from chronic pain. The funds are helping Pack Health run a behavior-based pilot designed to reduce opioid dependence and addiction.
“That was a radical move for us, but the sweet part is that it’s an investment that makes sense for our community,” Calhoun told the audience.
That was the first of six impact investments made in 2019. More recently, the foundation has provided assistance to OPAL Investments, a subsidiary of Opportunity Alabama, and ABEL: Healthcare, a local startup that is improving communications in the medical industry.
Calhoun said with the conversations that have arisen due to the COVID-19 pandemic and systemic racism, it’s time now, more than ever, to make an impact.
“Everyone has been having really thoughtful conversations in this space that we’ve been given by the pandemic to talk about systemic racism, which has been there all the time,” she said. “But we didn’t have graduations, proms, gala season and March Madness to distract us from the realities of what has been happening to Black and brown people forever. We have to be courageous, ferocious and relentless as we do this work. I’m from Alabama, so this is real for me in a cellular way.
“It’s a moment not to be missed. It’s a moment not to be glossed over,” Calhoun said. “It’s fine to feel better. But I think it’s critical to do better, and I think that the work that can be activated through impact investing is powerful.”