September 22, 2014

Learning by doing: W.K. Kellogg Foundation’s Approach to Impact Investing

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We approach our mission-driven investments in very much the same way we approach grantmaking – with clear goals, a focus on our mission and constantly learning from our work.
By Joel Wittenberg, W.K. Kellogg Foundation Vice President and Chief Investment Officer

As a foundation whose roots trace back more than 80 years, reflection on the past is a key part of our process for moving forward. Are we staying true to the values and the intent of our late founder, Will Keith Kellogg, as we steward the resources he left to improve the lives of children and families? And can we employ new approaches to using those resources to maximize our impact on those he cared about most?

A case study on the development of the W.K. Kellogg Foundation (WKKF) Mission Driven Investments program by the Impact Investor Project presented us a unique opportunity to answer those questions and gain new perspective on the journey we officially began in 2007. The term “impact investment” was still in its infancy, and our work in this area grew in tandem with the field’s understanding of this new vehicle for advancing social good.

WKKF’s mission is to support children, families and communities as they strengthen and create conditions that propel vulnerable children to achieve success as individuals and as contributors to the larger community and society. The idea of investing endowment dollars to further that mission, while achieving both social and financial returns, was one thoroughly discussed and debated, and ultimately, fully supported at all levels of the organization.

Grantmaking is still a very important tool for foundations like WKKF, but in a fast-changing world with scarce resources, we are exploring ways to leverage endowment dollars to achieve the greatest possible impact toward our mission. We approach our mission-driven investments in very much the same way we approach grantmaking – with clear goals, a focus on our mission and constantly learning from our work.

Because we are also focused on generating a learning return from our investments, our approach to our investment portfolio as a whole has benefited now that we’ve moved past the start-up phase. We hope that by participating in this project, other foundations and impact investors may gain some insight into how they might leverage their endowment dollars to accompany a grantmaking portfolio. In our case, we seek to support pathways for healthy and educated children to grow up in economically strong families – all with an intentional focus on promoting racial equity and healing and engaging all members of a community in support of its children.

As we move forward in this emerging field, we are still learning. The field of impact investing has taken off at a rapid clip, and we look forward to seeing how the collective work and other case studies of the Impact Investor Project will help shine a light on what works, what doesn’t work and where we need to go in making investments that create truly meaningful, sustainable change.

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