When I left Opportunity Finance Network (OFN) at the beginning of the summer, several people urged me to take the summer off. I did not know how to do that. I have been working full-time since college.
One good friend asked me, “When was the last time you really didn’t work? Not vacations, but not working.”
The answer was 37 years. It was time to take a deep breath to recover my sense of direction and to enjoy this opportunity to rest up for my “third act.”
I remembered the time a table came apart at a family gathering more than 30 years ago. Someone was trying to expand the table to make room for more people when it collapsed.
As too many people jumped in to try to fix things, my sister Linda counseled me to, “Don’t just do something. stand there!”
In June, I focused on relaxing… with unexpected and welcome success.
In July, I started work on Opportunity. For All., the book on CDFIs I have been trying to write for almost a decade. It started slow but easily fell into a fun and rewarding rhythm.
In August, I worked intensively on the book while starting to think about what I really wanted to do with the balance of my career.
Well, that’s not quite true.
I have known for several years that I wanted a “third act,” that it would involve consulting, and that it would be a way to extend and expand my commitment to the alignment of money plus purpose.
I learned more about money and purpose working in the CDFI industry than I knew there was to learn. I saw money+purpose in practice over 25 years alongside dedicated, talent people working at CDFIs from Los Angeles to New Hampshire and from Pine Ridge to Florida. I watched policy form around money and purpose, starting with the CDFI Fund in the early 1990s and then blossom in remarkable ways over almost 25 years.
Along the way, I had the chance to work inside the bank regulatory system, particularly in my time on the Federal Reserve’s Consumer Advisory Council in the mid-2000’s. How did an English major end up sitting around a small table with multiple Federal Reserve Board Governors including, at times, Chairman Ben Bernanke?
When the financial system imploded because of bad lending, out-of-date or inadequate regulations, and lots and lots of bad behavior, I had a front row seat in communities, in the financial system, and in the highest levels of government. Among other events, I participated in a Wall Street Journal working session in Spring 2009 with a host of big names in finance, Nobel Prize winners, and other luminaries. It was humbling and awkward–what was I even doing there?–until I realized that no one in that room was any smarter or had better answers than the CDFI crowd I usually hung with.
On this side of the Recession, I saw CDFIs differently as I realized that everyone else did, too. In a sense, the Recession was a proof point for CDFIs–their performance surprised most everyone, their resilience inspired many, and their innovation produced real, lasting solutions and lessons. (I write about this in Opportunity. For All.)
My first notion that it was time to think about my third act came about that time. What drew me to CDFIs was their ability to work outside the margins of the mainstream, leveraging the mainstream to meet the needs of underserved and under-resourced people and communities. Better still, as CDFIs helped the mainstream trust in the people and communities outside the mainstream, it helped the people outside the mainstream believe in themselves.
Finance writer James Grant says that credit is a financial transaction with a moral lineage because no one lends money without a strong belief in the borrower’s future. CDFIs believe in their borrowers like no one else can.
But CDFIs, as a good friend kept telling me, seem to have “lost their edge.” It’s not that simple, but CDFIs have changed. With acceptance comes opportunity; the mainstream brings resources. CDFIs continue to work with one foot in the world of wealth and another in the communities of poverty.
The future is promising, and others are stepping up to meet the challenge of achieving the potential of that future. I believe I can do more outside the margins of the CDFI industry.
In April 2015, I was sitting in my car at a dead stop in yet another bad traffic jam on Route 95 on my way to work in Philadelphia, hoping the drivers behind me were alert. I looked in my rear view mirror and saw a minivan driven by a guy who was not alert. He was texting. Two handed.
I had a few seconds–seconds that felt simultaneously too quick and very long–to take stock. If I were going to die, what did I think? How did my life turn out?
Spoiler: I didn’t die. In fact, I wasn’t hurt physically, though my car was totaled. The next day I drove four hours each way to Penn State in University Park to spend the day with a remarkable group of students in the Net Impact chapter there. I was not going to let the accident slow me down.
And then a lot changed after the accident.
Six weeks later my father died at age 93, a blessing and a curse. Then I had a minor health issue that reminded me I was getting older. My wife had a health issue that led us to move from our home of 27 years in the suburbs–where our kids had grown up–to a home in the city (that’s Philadelphia). I did not anticipate how much better my life would become as a result. My daughter graduated from college this Spring and my son recently decided to change career paths.
And I no longer work as President and CEO of OFN, a job I enjoyed for so long.
After the accident and after OFN, it was not hard to decide what to do.
More plainly than ever, my passion is the intersection of money+purpose. Money does not mean much, if anything, until it is put to a purpose, and that’s what interests me. As Adina Abramowitz says, “Vision without resources is an hallucination.”
I am a consultant again. (I was a consultant in the early 1990s when I stumbled into the CDFI industry and, eventually, my role at OFN.)
I am happy and healthier than I have been in years.
I started my career in 1979 working on energy and environmental issues. I spent several years on workforce development and labor issues, including occupational health. (A little known fact: I published two books in the 1990s on occupational and environmental health. Don’t look for them on Amazon.com; they are too obscure even there.)
I worked on Capital Hill, where I learned just enough to seem experienced to the CDFI world. I co-edited a major policy tome for what never became the Dukakis Administration. It was underwhelming, in my opinion, except for a terrific introduction written by a then-unknown Governor from Arkansas, Bill Clinton.
In that process, I learned about politics and money; in fact, for a series of odd reasons, I had the experience of introducing Governor Clinton to someone who would later be one of his biggest campaign funders (and, eventually, in January 2001, one of his last mini-scandals as President).
Then there was my experience with CDFIs, where I got to ride the surging wave of CDFI practice at a great organization working with wonderful people. (Highlights of my CDFI time are covered in the book I am writing, which I plan to share in excerpts on this blog.)
There was a singular, particular moment in 1990 when I knew that CDFIs were for me, though I never imagined the ride I would get to go on. For more than 25 years, my work centered on CDFIs while my life focused on my family.
At the 1990 NACDLF (National Association of Community Development Loan Funds) Conference, Bill Greider and Tom Schlesinger spoke. Greider was a former Washington Post editor who had moved over to Rolling Stone. He was also author of Secrets of the Temple, a searing look at the Federal Reserve System. Schlesinger was a community organizer turned researcher who, with Jane D’Arista at Boston University School of Law, took the first deep look at the “parallel banking” system. They documented the span of insurance companies, finance companies, mortgage companies, government-sponsored entities (GSEs), and others that benefitted from government backing but operated outside the regulatory system.
For most of the 80 or so people at the 4H Center just outside of the District of Columbia, it was the first time they had heard CDFIs–not that we used that name yet–think about policy.
Here’s what got my attention: The conversation turned to Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the housing GSEs we now know so well, and their reliance on implicit government backing, which became explicit in the housing crisis. In that room, in 1990, among a group of people who knew very little about public policy, everyone seemed to know that eventually the government would have to step in to bail out Fannie and Freddie.
How did they know that? I wondered. What did they see or experience in their work that pitted them against conventional wisdom?
I realized two things listening to that conversation:
First, that no one in that room understood how important or relevant their work and experience was to the future of U.S. policy… in many areas.
Second, this world was where I wanted to be.
I had found my way to the CDFI world after editing a major policy book for what would have been the Dukakis Administration. I was dispirited not only by the failure of the Dukakis campaign but also by what I considered a dearth of good ideas in the 600-page book (America’s Transition: Blueprint for the 1990s, 1988; out of print, even on Amazon). The only thing I really liked about the book was the Introduction, written by then-Governor Bill Clinton.
Then, as now, I wanted to tangle with innovative, cutting edge work at the intersection of finance and mission, or as I am calling it now, money+purpose. In the early years of the CDFI industry, I found people doing work that was supposed to be impossible–and succeeding.
I wanted to be part of that world. Fortunately for me, I got to do that.
The CDFI industry has matured, succeeded beyond even its own expectations, and set sights on great things.
My focus now is broader. CDFIs, yes, but more. I know with certainty already, just months in, that my experience will guide me as I work in new ways on money+purpose.
It’s no accident that I made this change when I did, and it’s no accident that I am writing more, advising others, and seeing the world a little differently. From outside the margins.
It’s on purpose.
I invite you to check in from time to time for information on the things I am doing, what I am writing and where I am speaking, and what I think about major events in and around money+purpose.
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