In today’s ever-changing landscape of social and environmental challenges, nonprofits play a crucial role in addressing human need. Asking for a little bit of money to address a little bit of the need, however, can at times feel like putting a Band-Aid on an open chest wound, said CICOA President and CEO Tauhric Brown.
“It used to be, ‘I want to give $1 to help serve this meal,’” Brown said. “Now the conversation is, how do we solve this issue of poor nutrition for the populations we serve both for today and tomorrow? How do we solve the issue of homelessness, given the lack of affordable and available housing in our community? How do we solve the transportation challenge facing seniors and people with disabilities?”
It can become a negative feedback loop, a vicious cycle, that creates a sense of hopelessness about making a difference or solving real world problems.
So how do we make and measure real impact in today’s world?
At CICOA, we often rely on a combination of donations, grants, volunteers and partners to advance our mission. While these traditional sources are vital, there’s another powerful tool today that increasingly can accelerate and amplify our work: impact investing.
Impact investment funds are financial vehicles designed to generate both financial returns and positive social or environmental outcomes. These funds bridge the gap between traditional philanthropy and profit-driven investments, making them an ideal resource for nonprofits looking to expand their reach and deepen their impact.
“You want to meet the needs today, but you also want to build infrastructure so that, ultimately, you can eradicate the problem,” said Bridge Builder Strategies President and CEO Dr. Mike Simmons. “The only way you’re going to do that is through innovation.”
A former CICOA board member and current business partner, Simmons is putting his money where his mouth is with a $10,000 donation to CICOA’s Wrinkle Innovation Fund. He is joined by Tauhric Brown and his wife, Laura, who are matching Simmons’ $10,000 investment, toward the goal of creating an endowed innovation fund over the next few years of at least $1 million.
Since the launch of CICOA’s Innovation Studio in 2019—now branded Wrinkle Innovation—CICOA has nurtured a culture of innovation and continual process improvement. We’ve launched four new companies from staff-generated ideas (with more in the pipeline) and collaborated with another non-profit to build and launch a resource tool for family caregivers.
While Simmons and the Browns historically have supported nonprofits that address basic human needs, like many today they are turning to social impact funding or impact investing for increased impact.
“When you fund innovation,” Simmons said, “the opportunity exists to reinvest money back into the fund when new products and services are commercialized. So, while it’s still a philanthropic gift, it’s more aligned with social impact investing. What the fund invests in generates a return that allows you not only to sustain it, but also to grow it, so more things can be developed. Now instead of a vicious cycle, it becomes a virtuous cycle.”
Before launching Bridge Builder Strategies in 2018, Simmons worked for 30 years at Eli Lilly and Company, where he held leadership roles in sales, marketing and corporate affairs. Today he also serves on the faculty of Butler University, teaching New Product Development and directing the MBA Board Fellows Program.
“I’ve been having ongoing conversations about Wrinkle Innovation, both in terms of growing the fund, as well as helping to move new products through the pipeline to launch and beyond,” Simmons said. “I thought it made sense, given the partnership with CICOA as well as my belief in innovation. It was easy to say yes.”
Here are some ways impact investing can empower CICOA’s mission.
By providing access to capital that can be reinvested in innovation initiatives, impact investment funds help CICOA become more financially sustainable. This can reduce our reliance on grants and donations, ultimately making us less vulnerable to economic fluctuations and changes in funding priorities.
“It’s really about expanding our revenue sources,” Brown said. “The future of nonprofit work is not going to be just about philanthropy. So, it’s looking at different avenues to sustain the work while also leading the other AAAs (Area Agencies on Aging) across the state and nation in, not only how we do business, but also creating better systems for doing what we do.”
Nonprofits often face the challenge of limited resources, hindering the ability to scale for impact. Impact investment funds offer the potential for substantial investment, allowing nonprofits to reach more beneficiaries, extend programs, and tackle larger and more complex problems.
“With innovation at CICOA, we’re getting excited about seeing new things happen,” said Brown. “It’s about building infrastructure and helping drive systemic change, while still being able to meet today’s needs. But we’re also looking to build systems that better serve us going forward.”
“It’s about finding ways to be more effective and efficient in what we do and how we do it, so we can scale to meet increasing demand. I think of it as creating new concepts to benefit communities, community members and other service organizations,” he said.
Impact investment funds often have connections and networks within both nonprofit and business sectors. These connections can lead to strategic partnerships, opening doors for nonprofits to collaborate with other organizations, share knowledge and create synergistic solutions to complex problems.
“I think each of the new products that we’ve developed have great potential,” Brown said. “And our innovation consulting work can help drive that also. It’s not just the value of consulting fees, though. These collaborations are key to generating longer term value for CICOA by driving innovation both inside and outside the organization.”
Impact investors are committed to tracking the social and environmental impact of their investments. By aligning with an impact investment fund, nonprofits can access expertise and tools to measure and communicate their impact more effectively, which, in turn, can attract more investors, donors and partners.
“Whether somebody’s expecting a personal return, or whether they’re just looking at the return to the organization or the community, impact is a central driver to all of this,” Simmons said. “And that’s what’s going to help drive change, too, because when you can show tangible results, and you can tell a story around it, those are the kinds of things people want to invest in.”
Alignment with Mission
Impact investing and nonprofits share a common goal: to create a positive impact on society. This alignment ensures that the investments made by these funds are in harmony with the mission and values of the nonprofits they support.
“In the space we operate in, our innovation, venture work, process improvement work is really critical to our mission,” Brown said. “If you’re not constantly looking to ideate, prototype, iterate, and then launch something, then you’re really in a stagnant place. Complacency can set in very easily, and before you know it, everyone has passed you by. For me, it’s the difference between having a growth mindset or a fixed mindset, where we just go through the motions and don’t really advance the mission.”
Some impact investment funds are willing to take on higher levels of risk than traditional investors, allowing nonprofits to explore innovative solutions and pilot projects that might otherwise be deemed too risky by other funding sources.
“I think one thing that often happens is that we look at the way we’ve always done things, and we say that’s safe,” Simmons said. “But safe isn’t always safe; sometimes it’s just familiar. In many cases, the status quo that we perceive as safe adds the most risk to the organization, especially around processes, compliance issues and technology. So it’s important to discern between the two, so that you’re able to advance your cause. You don’t want to run headlong into risk, but it’s just being thoughtful about the approach.”
By providing access to flexible capital, scalability and innovative partnerships, social investing empowers nonprofits to not only survive, but also thrive in our mission-driven work. As the world continues to grapple with complex issues, the collaboration between nonprofits and impact investors also offers a promising path towards sustainable, positive change.
“We have a big job ahead of us,” Brown said. “We must help people understand not only what impact investing is, but also inspire them to give to CICOA’s innovation fund. And then we need to equip them to share that story with others, so they also are willing to invest.”
If you are looking to invest in good people with good ideas in a high-growth industry for sustainable social impact, contact CICOA Wrinkle Innovation today.
HOW CAN WE ACCELERATE IMPACT?