Social Impact Heroes: Why & How Jeff Brenner of IMPACT Community Capital is Helping to Change Our World
The saying “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks” is a lie. I’m an old dog and as we hire new and younger employees, they are constantly teaching me “new tricks.” Regrettably, work life balance has not always been a part of my career. As we hire new, and younger employees, they’ve made it clear that they want to work for a company that prioritizes their life outside of the office. It is a sign of respect for them as individuals and is as important as any benefit a company can offer.
As part of my series about “individuals and organizations making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Jeff Brenner.
Jeff Brenner is the President and CEO of IMPACT Community Capital, an SEC registered investment adviser advancing opportunity in underinvested communities through purpose driven investments. Jeff leads the development and implementation of strategy and directs the overall operations of the Company. Formed in 1998 by leading insurance companies, IMPACT delivers institutional investment solutions unlocking value for investors while building the necessary infrastructure for underinvested communities. Jeff has 35 years of experience in the financial sector, including 25 years specializing in impact investing bringing a determination to harness the power of capital markets to address intractable social problems and enact systemic change.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
Early in my career working at a regional bank, I was offered an opportunity to interview with a small finance firm that was starting a new healthcare lending group. During my interview with the CEO, she explained that I would be making loans to finance community health centers in low-income communities — health centers that would often be the only healthcare resources available to residents of the community (besides emergency rooms). I was intrigued that this work combined finance — work that I enjoy — with the opportunity to make positive impact in low-income communities. Moreso, I was awe-struck by the CEO. She so clearly and passionately articulated a vision for what this company could become and the difference that it could make, that I became an immediate believer. I had never been exposed to leadership of this kind in my career. I knew that if I had the chance to lead someday, she would be a great model to learn from.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company or organization?
I’m uncertain if the pandemic qualifies as interesting, but it is certainly the most impactful event during my time with IMPACT Community Capital. Overnight, we had to evolve to become a virtual organization in terms of communications — and did so while we were in growth mode. Beyond solving the practical challenges of completing our day-to-day work, it was important to find ways to maintain interpersonal connections, as we all struggled with the isolation. We were also challenged to build culture amongst a growing team in a remote environment, especially while integrating new hires into the IMPACT team. One employee was with us for almost a year before she met the entire team! Like most companies, we relied on virtual communication, such as Zoom and Teams, to keep us connected. Finding creative ways to adapt and connect with our team members really strengthened our bond, especially at our small firm. Collaborating on activities, like trivia games, and connecting with everyone on a social level gave me a greater appreciation for the truly quality people we have on our team.
It has been said that our mistakes can be our greatest teachers. Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
I find that the mistakes (which are funniest in hindsight,) often feel highly awkward when they happen, and my first visit to a community health center still stands out in my memory for its awkwardness! Still new to the role and not long removed from my first job in banking, I dressed to impress for my very first “sales call” at a community health center to discuss a loan. I selected my best (and only) suit, a red power tie and recently shined oxfords. I proudly walked through the door carrying my leather banker’s standard issue brief case and announced myself as being there “to meet with the Executive Director.” With a slow up-and-down look, her assistant invited me to have a seat in the clinic waiting room with the patients waiting for their doctor’s appointment. I sat among patients who were clearly coming from (or going to) jobs where steel toed boots, work gloves and coveralls were the necessary attire. I stood out like a sore thumb, embarrassed by the importance I placed on my attire. I learned that it is not about appearance, but instead, listening and connecting with the communities you work with. Being an effective partner means having empathy for the people you meet and the ways in which you can best serve their needs.
Can you describe how you or your organization is making a significant social impact?
IMPACT was founded on the belief that private capital must be a part of the solution to addressing the critical issues of poverty, equity, and inclusion — and that institutional investors have a role to play. With an aspiration to end poverty and promote greater equity, we must provide every person with a safe, affordable place to live. Our country has an affordable housing crisis. As described in IMPACT Community Capital’s 2022 Impact Report, there is not a county, metro area or state, where a person earning the federal, prevailing state or local minimal wage, can afford a modest two-bedroom rental home.
Since inception, IMPACT has financed more than 50,000 units of affordable housing across 42 states. More importantly, IMPACT-financed affordable housing provided over $32.6 million in aggregate rent savings for residents in 2021* — or an average $823 per month — for residents earning 30% of their area median income, which is a real savings and pays for the rising cost of food, childcare, transportation, and utilities.
*IMPACT Data as of 12/31/22
Can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?
Many years ago, I received a call from the director of a small network of health centers seeking the last bit of financing she needed to open a new site in rural Arizona, in a community which did not have access to local or affordable primary healthcare. The loan was small — but the director was persistent and insistent. We made the loan, and I was invited to the grand opening. Following the opening, the director approached me with tears in her eyes and gave me a great hug, a gesture that a banker is not used to. She thanked me for listening and responding to her request. Our loan, despite its small size, was crucial for the health center and the community, which otherwise would not have been able to build that much needed access to healthcare. This experience left an impression on me: that “small” items can have the ability to make a significant impact on communities, along with the incredible value of listening to advocates involved on the ground.
Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?
We need to have good public policy that stimulates investment in affordable housing, such as the Federal Low Income Housing Tax Credit. Since land and development is so expensive, particularly in large metros, it is nearly impossible to build housing that is affordable to the lowest income households without public subsidy. The subsidy does not fund most of the cost, but it must be sufficient and accessible to drive private investment.
State and local governments can review laws and regulations for building housing and consider the real cost and benefit. Communities can learn more about housing that is being proposed for development, which is one of the most crucial ways that individuals can make an impact. Affordable housing comes with too many misperceptions about what is being built and who will live there. The positive impacts of adding affordable housing are manifold and have ripple effects: When more people can live and work in the same community, they spend their money in the community — helping local merchants, stimulating the economy, and growing the tax base. Both the environment and commuters benefit with fewer cars on the road and less traffic. When affordable housing sees a buy-in from the community, it benefits not just the residents, but makes the communities stronger too.
Are you working on any new or exciting projects now? How do you think this might help people?
We have two new strategies we are working on; both efforts are oriented toward driving more capital to communities in need. The first strategy is anticipated to be sized at half a billion dollars to finance new affordable housing in communities throughout the country. The second is focused on infrastructure; low-income communities tend to be disproportionately impacted by natural disasters and underinvestment in infrastructure, so the strategy will focus on high impact municipal bonds to finance critical infrastructure components, such as access to clean water and good schools.
Through both projects, we are working to ensure that low-income, underserved communities have access to essential resources, like housing, education, and other critical needs.
What you are doing is not easy. What inspires you to keep moving forward?
I’m inspired by the knowledge that what we do today, and what we hope to do tomorrow, can make a difference. At the end of my toughest days, I find inspiration (and relief) in knowing that everything we do is intended to impact underserved communities.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why? Please share a story or example for each.
- The saying “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks” is a lie. I’m an old dog and as we hire new and younger employees, they are constantly teaching me “new tricks.” Regrettably, work life balance has not always been a part of my career. As we hire new, and younger employees, they’ve made it clear that they want to work for a company that prioritizes their life outside of the office. It is a sign of respect for them as individuals and is as important as any benefit a company can offer.
- Learn the difference between “listening” and “just waiting my turn to talk.” Being a great listener is a skill that should be taught early and often. I’m privileged to work with smart people from diverse backgrounds. I’m a much better decision-maker when I actively listen to what they are telling me and benefit from their experience and expertise.
- Going hand-in-hand with being a good listener, sometimes people just want to be heard. My inclination can be to just problem solve and move on to the next thing — especially since in my role, I am often expected to make decisions. So, when someone initiates a conversation, I’m trying to identify the problem and figure out how to solve it. During those times, I’m not being a good listener because I’m busy trying to solve the problem. Sometimes, people just want to give me feedback or input; they want me to listen and feel that they are being heard. Sometimes, simply listening is the best action I can take.
- Embrace change. A strong need for order and predictability is in my DNA. So, throughout my career I’ve often resisted change. I’ve learned, for me, that this is about feeling in control. Always trying to be in control is exhausting, especially since there are always things beyond your control. If you can separate what you can control from what you cannot, you can embrace (or maybe at least accept) change and be better able to adapt as needed.
- Compartmentalizing can be good. When you feel impassioned, it is important to take a moment to pause and reflect on the situation — this can be one of the smartest and most important things you can do. This allows you to give your full attention, effort and thought to grasp the task at hand, unencumbered by what preceded that moment. This will lead to better outcomes, and it is likely you will not be looking for the “recall” button to unsend a fiery email…
You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger
I would like to inspire the “decade of empathy.” Today, our differences tend to stand out more than the commonalities we share, making us feel more polarized and isolated. We can make an impact if we seek to understand each other better, appreciate what makes us different and embrace our similarities. In a world of such diversity, there is little room for binary thinking. We can make space for compromise — in giving up a little, we gain a lot.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
From an early age, my dad used to tell me, “You can’t understand someone until you’ve walked a mile in their shoes.” It took me time to understand that this was about empathy and judging. Although I’m not always successful, I try to make this a natural part of my thought process now. This is even more important today as the world becomes more polarized and diverse. Everyone experiences things differently, but we can bridge large gaps if we work together, attempting to learn, understand and embrace what makes us different and similar.
Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them.
Tara Westover, author of “Educated; A Memoir.” She overcame so much adversity, persevered and refused to surrender. One passage in her book meant so much to me, which I’ve read repetitively: “I had come to believe that the ability to evaluate many ideas, many histories, many points of view, was at the heart of what it means to create one’s self. If I yielded now, I would lose more than an argument. I would lose custody of my own mind.” Her story is so inspiring and I’m so grateful that she shared it. I’d love the opportunity to ask her about how she persevered and to thank her for her inspiration.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
You can visit our website impactcapital.net to learn more about our work and read our most recent IMPACT Report, or follow us on social media on LinkedIn and Twitter. IMPACT recently launched our 25th anniversary campaign this year to celebrate the positive impacts our investments in affordable housing have had for communities across America over the last quarter century. We would love for you to follow along.
This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!
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