By Michael Hsu, Staff Writer
Working for Environmental Entrepreneurs (E2), an influential network of business leaders who advocate for environmental policy change, Hannah was charged with setting E2’s short- and long-term priorities on California’s intractable water issues. The project timeline? 11 weeks.
“It’s something I could have happily worked on for two years,” Hannah laughs.
Meanwhile, Alicia Eerenstein (C19) began her 10-week internship at ImpactAssets—a leading-edge nonprofit that connects investors with socially, environmentally, and financially impactful investment opportunities—in the midst of a personnel transition. To fill a staffing gap, Alicia was given vital responsibilities from the start.
“I actually was able to own and support work that was part of the critical path for the investment team, which was exciting as an intern,” Alicia explains.
At Mission Investors Exchange in Seattle, Mara Slade (C14) was tasked during her internship with managing the production of a field guide for small-staff family foundations. At a nonprofit founded with an express purpose of sharing best practices in the mission investing/impact investing space, this was an essential project.
“I was pretty much driving it,” Mara says. “But it was good to be able to take the reins and run with it.”
While Mara was able to draw on her background in corporate marketing and consumer insights in interviewing foundations about their wants and needs for the guide, her internship was also the first time she has worked in the philanthropic field. She says it was “eye-opening” to learn about the unique aspects of the nonprofit sector—the limited resources, the deliberate pace of work, and the influence of nonprofit boards.
Like Mara, Alicia also came from the private sector, working at Accenture as a consultant for Fortune 500 companies. At ImpactAssets, Alicia had her “first practical experience in the impact investing space” supporting the financial and impact due diligence and evaluation process for single deal opportunities brought to the firm by investors. A “phenomenal” mentor, ImpactAssets Chief Investments Officer Fran Seegull, provided invaluable guidance on the financial side.
“When you work with good managers who emphasize people development, you really appreciate that value,” Alicia says. “Anyone can do their job really well but not many take the time to help grow the next generation, which is so critical.”
Hannah, at E2, also benefited from the lessons and undiminished passion of an industry veteran. As she crafted recommendations that ranged from promulgating stringent groundwater regulations to improving municipal water-use monitoring to implementing a cap-and-trade system for water resources, Hannah drew inspiration from her conversations with Barry Nelson, formerly a senior policy analyst with the Natural Resources Defense Council.
“I was thinking someone with such a long and seasoned career might be almost cynical, but he was always wanting to explore and always wanting to look in new directions,” Hannah says.
On the flip side, however, her enthusiasm was tempered by her exposure to certain political realities and constraints. Hannah came to understand the need to look at her proposals through the lens of an organization’s internal priorities and against the complex backdrop of private-public relationships.
“What it really means to want to change the system looked very different from that office, than what I had imagined it to look like,” she says.
Mara also encountered somewhat surprising political pressures from within. She discovered that nonprofits had to play to the middle and satisfy a host of diverse stakeholders unlike the more provocative (and potentially controversial) posture of corporate entities.
“It’s good to have a more balanced perspective and really think through how the organization’s actions are going to affect our members and what are they going to think about this,” she says.
As each of the Presidians learned the ecosystem in which their respective organizations operate and innovate, they also gained a new appreciation for their work. Alicia, who wrote case studies of exemplary enterprises in ImpactAssets’ second annual Impact Report, was inspired by the stories of a mobile payment service in Zambia increasing access to banking services, a seed-stage education resource exchange improving child learning outcomes, and others. She also grew to admire the ethos of ImpactAssets itself, which is building the nascent impact investing field and pushing for a broader democratization of the space.
“Through their donor-advised funds, they’re trying to allow ‘normal’ people—you and I—to participate,” says Alicia, noting that there is a concerted effort across the industry to lower minimums for investing.
At Mission Investors Exchange, an influential one-stop resource for charitable foundations large and small, Mara also saw the field expanding and evolving. She notes that more sophisticated foundations are writing their own investment policy statements and even pursuing higher-risk, higher-yield private equity investments. Mara also points to Charly and Lisa Kleissner, whose KL Felicitas Foundation is setting an example for other family foundations by striving to allocate 100 percent of its endowment toward social impact—far above the minimum 5 percent required by law to go to charitable causes.
“They’re using themselves as the case study,” Mara explains. “They’re publishing their portfolio and what their results have been. Their investment policy is online. They’re really putting it out there that: ‘Hey, this is possible. Other foundations and angel investors interested in impact investing can do this too.’”
Of course, a spirit of sharing wisdom and experience is also the lifeblood of any internship. Overall, the PGS students were glad for the generous souls and eager teachers they met during their summer of “sink or swim” adventures.
“I didn’t realize how hands-on people would be,” Alicia says. “I was totally and delightfully surprised at how collaborative and engaged the individuals I worked with were.”
The internships of Alicia and Mara were supported by the Betsy and Jesse Fink Family Foundation Impact Investing Internship Program. Hannah’s internship was supported by the MK Gratitude Fund of RSF Social Finance. If you would like more information about the Betsy and Jesse Fink Family Foundation Impact Investing Internship Program or other internship opportunities, please contact PGS Development.
This article originally appeared in the Fall 2014 edition of Presidian:
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