Social Impact Investors: How O. Victoria Lakes-Battle of IFF Is Helping To Empower Under-Resourced Nonprofits and the Communities They Serve
Deep community engagement — working shoulder-to-shoulder with communities, we have the greatest success when our partners are deeply connected and honoring community engagement principles, which means co-creating with the community.
As a part of our series about “Social Impact Investors”, I had the pleasure of interviewing O. Victoria “Vickie” Lakes-Battle.
For over 30 years, O. Victoria “Vickie” Lakes-Battle has been at the forefront of commercial and mission-based lending. With a never-ending reserve of expertise in community development, finance, and executive leadership, Vickie leads with equity, purpose, and strategy. As Executive Director for IFF’s Chicago Metro region, she oversees IFF’s full-range of services to empower under-resourced nonprofits and the communities they serve to thrive. Vickie serves on the Board of Directors for the Illinois Public Health Institute, Arts Alliance Illinois, Cook County Land Bank Authority, AMPT: Advancing Nonprofits.
Share a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
I came to this career path by accident during a time in life when I was trying to find myself. I was going to school to be a nail technician when my grandmother — who was a civil rights activist, educator, genealogist, and powerful civil servant — issued me an ultimatum and urged me to focus my career on contributing to community building. Commitment to community and to people of color is in my blood. And so, I was introduced to a family friend who was the chairman of Seaway National Bank, then the largest Black-owned bank in the country, and I began working as a bookkeeping intern. From there, I was invited to participate in Seaway’s management training program and learned the entire ecosystem of banking — from operations to administration and everything in between.
After going through the management training program, I was routed toward the commercial lending division. As the largest Black-owned bank, Seaway provided a service to Black entrepreneurs by bridging the gap of lack of access to opportunities. I’ve always been provocative and challenged systems, and working for the largest Black-owned bank gave me a platform to do that in service to my own community. I continued to rise up through the ranks working to create pathways for access to capital for Black entrepreneurs specifically on Chicago’s South and West sides.
Share a story with us about the most humorous mistake you made when you were first starting? What lesson or take-away did you learn from that?
When I was 19 working in bookkeeping at Seaway Bank, I was working alongside the check-filers who were mostly senior citizen women known as the “statement ladies.” One day I had an outburst — minimizing their role compared to mine — and they were quick to put me in my place. It wasn’t funny at the time, but in hindsight it helped shape my perspective and understanding of the necessary, but often unseen and invisible work. As Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “No work is insignificant. All labor that uplifts humanity has dignity and importance and should be undertaken with painstaking excellence.” I realized it was my responsibility to learn and understand how their role supported the whole, which reoriented me to systems-level thinking — how oftentimes the unseen, invisible work is what moves the needle, and how jobs that aren’t in the forefront contribute mightily to greater outcomes. I made a mistake of minimizing roles I thought to be less significant, and I learned that they were integral.
Are you able to identify a “tipping point” in your career when you started to see success? Did you start doing anything different? Are there takeaways or lessons that others can learn from that?
While at Seaway Bank, I had opportunities to work closely with the CEO. He had great positional authority, but did not enjoy public speaking. I was a fearless youngster with no qualms about speaking my mind, making mistakes, and failing forward. We were quite the pair. He created space for me to step into and develop my strength without seeing that as a challenge to his authority or expertise. Through our relationship I learned to understand the unique circumstances of each employee, their strengths and opportunities, and to value their contributions and trust their judgment. And I decided there was no job I wouldn’t try to do myself in order to gain insight into any employee’s work experience. What did success look like for them? What challenges did they face?
This greatly influenced my leadership style. It taught me to focus on a human centric approach, listening to the needs of my team, and walking alongside them, because behind all the products and services there are people doing the work. Community development is difficult and understanding what I call people’s “come from place” facilitates our ability to dig deep together.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person or mentor to whom you are grateful who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
I’ve had so many great mentors. Walter Grady, Seaway Bank President and CEO, didn’t give up on me, despite me being a thorn in his side. He was the one who brought me into the management training and challenged me at every step. Dick Spur at Harris Bank taught me how mainstream financial institutions operate, how to see the promise of possibilities around projects, and to understand the why behind the what. Elvin Charity, of Charity & Associates law firm, is a legal genius who is masterful at making complex jargon plain, relevant, and easily digestible. All of them paved the way and provided me with a diversity of perspectives and systems training.
Do you have any words of advice for others who may want to embark on this career path but are afraid of the prospect of failure?
I see parallels between what I think is needed for successful community development and what I think is needed for successful leadership. At IFF, we talk a lot about the enabling environment that is required to drive transformational change in community. Our expertise lies at the intersection of facilities and finance, but there are other stakeholders — nonprofits, philanthropy, government — that need to be at the table in community with their respective expertise and resources to catalyze equitable development. In order to be an effective intermediary, we need to understand that broader ecosystem and know that we cannot play every role. As a leader — and I’m not limiting leaders to those with a specific title, anyone can be a leader — you need to focus on understanding all of the components that make up the whole. There’s a lot of emphasis on getting to the top of an org chart, but in order to do that, and lead effectively, there needs to be a balanced understanding of all the parts that contribute to the whole organization, including the work that is often unseen. Leaders don’t need to be subject matter experts in everything, but they must have a functional understanding of the components and trust the direction of those they hire to lead the work.
Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the main part of our discussion. You are focused on investments that are making a positive social impact. Can you share with us a bit about the projects and companies you have focused on, and look to focus on in the future?
IFF believes that nonprofits are the strongest agents of change for driving positive social impact in communities and so we focus our lending, real estate, and programmatic offerings specifically on nonprofits and the communities they serve. To me this conjures images of being good neighbors and being present in tangible, accessible ways. That’s my recipe for equitably serving communities: time + proximity + authentic partnerships. So much of the financial world is presented as a collection of systems and processes void of emotion, but consumers feel and businesses think — our work of bringing positive social change is as much emotional as it is technical.
IFF is a partner for nonprofits and their communities, getting ideas off the white board and into activation by earning trust and building a mutual understanding of what is needed and wanted. We build community in order to help build places and spaces that put ideas, hopes, and dreams into service.
What you are doing is not very common. Was there an “Aha Moment” that made you decide that you were going to focus on social impact / nonprofit lending? Can you share the story with us?
Coming to IFF from the banking sector, I was socialized to believe in rules and processes that leave little room to interrogate what we do. So, the first “aha moment” for me was my introduction to the idea of non-appraisal based lending — which is something IFF was founded on 35 years ago — as an equity tool. For those nonprofits serving low-income communities, it is harder and more expensive to access debt from the traditional financing sector because redlining has driven down property and land value for decades. Nonprofit organizations don’t generally take a “market value approach” to the spaces they occupy; rather, the value is in what they do, and their space follows their programs. As a lender committed to removing barriers to capital for nonprofits, appraisal-based lending would keep us from our mission. This reoriented my thinking around real and perceived risk, and gave me space to begin all my work by asking who benefits and who is harmed with anything we do.
Can you share a story with us about a project/loan that you are most proud of? What was its lesson? How did it impact the organization?
Chicago’s Cultural Treasures (ChiTreasures) is really exciting because it’s a departure from what IFF has historically been a part of. IFF plays many roles in community development, but historically grantmaker was not one of them.
Born out of the Ford Foundation’s America’s Cultural Treasures and as a challenge to cities around the country, ChiTreasures is a four-year initiative focused on strengthening, growing, and preserving Chicago organizations whose mission is to enable the creation, preservation, and dissemination of art stemming from BIPOC traditions, leadership, and culture. Through a combination of critical general operating support and technical assistance, the goal is to bolster the long-term financial resilience and sustainability of these organizations. In 2020, six Chicago funders, some of whom IFF had never met before, came together to infuse capital into a sector that had been neglected and sought out IFF to help lead the way.
IFF accepted the role of administrator of ChiTreasures and for one of the first times we had a pot of money and intentional desire to get that money into the hands of legacy BIPOC-led and –focused cultural organizations. What we found was that there were no hidden treasures, they had been buried by years of uninvestment. Grant criteria were established, and a community panel was brought together to review proposals and recommend recipients for this long overdue investment in Chicago’s BIPOC cultural infrastructure. Over 140 letters of intent were received and 40 extraordinary Black, Latine, Asian, and Indigenous arts organizations were chosen to receive a total of $14.4 million in multi-year unrestricted grants along with capacity building and technical assistance support that was co-designed and tailored to meet the needs of the organizations.
At the height of the COVID-19 crisis, arts and culture organizations were called to step into the gap and fill voids in community in new ways. They became first responders in many communities, particularly communities of color. These organizations responded, bringing on more staff, pivoting business models, and taking on facilities projects. We are seeing the arts and culture sector embedded into Chicago’s neighborhood development plans and the importance of arts and culture in community development is now a regular conversation.
Since the unprecedented infusion of grant dollars, Chicago’s arts and culture organizations — especially those deep in communities and rooted in BIPOC culture — have received additional support. One of the biggest takeaways is that “where there’s a will, there’s a way.” This was not a standard grantmaking initiative. This was a race equity initiative for the arts and culture sector. This was new for IFF, it was new for the funding collective, it was new for Chicago. As we look ahead, the collective impact of this initiative will be the ongoing disruption of historical trends in funding for BIPOC-led and -focused cultural organizations, as anchors in equitable community development.
Can you share a story of a funding failure of yours? What was its lesson?
IFF is an explorer and learning organization. With a strong grounding in mission, we have the critical resources and trusted expertise to explore and innovate around new opportunities and new directions for nonprofits and other stakeholders in the community development ecosystem. With innovation comes failure; the key is to build a practice of reflection and learning so that we’re always iterating to drive greater impact.
Is there an opportunity to organization that you were unable to take/support and now regret? Can you share the story? What lesson did you learn from that story?
IFF has gone beyond the interests and limitations of a typical CDFI, developing deep sector expertise in early childhood education, K-12 education, and equitable community development, for example. This gives us an understanding of systems-level challenges, and a clarity on where our capital tools and services can and cannot play a role. By design, IFF supports nonprofits and from time-to-time organizations come to us who like our approach, but because of their tax status are unable to work with us. In those cases, we do what we can to find other avenues of support whether that be through a programmatic offering or a referral to another community development financial institution (CDFI). One specific example is an early childhood education provider, Little Angels in Chicago, run by a woman named Nashone Greer. While IFF was unable to support her through a loan, we were able to provide real estate consulting through our Quality Facilities for All grant program as well as refer her to a CDFI partner, Chicago Community Loan Fund. Because we understood the impact at a systems level of keeping Little Angels in place, we went above and beyond to step into a problem-solving role to get Ms. Greer the capital she needed. An experience like that shifts our identity and, in this case, allowed us to lean into the role of connector and bridge builder. It’s a reminder that our response doesn’t always have to be a product or service; sometimes leveraging our networks and partners might be the best, most important thing we can do.
Super. Here is the main question of this interview. What are your “5 things IFF needs to see before making an investment/loan/commitment” and why? Please share a story or example for each.
We approach challenges from a neighborhood level, always considering how one loan or real estate project can impact the greater community.
- Deep community engagement — working shoulder-to-shoulder with communities, we have the greatest success when our partners are deeply connected and honoring community engagement principles, which means co-creating with the community.
- General fluency and understanding of financial consequences and implications to the organization’s long term operations — so often there is an emphasis for a nonprofit to just get into a building with no consideration for the organization’s long term success. A general understanding of the financial consequences goes a long way.
- Clear vision of what the project/facility looks like in action — what are the people doing in and around the space, what does it feel like. Some might think those are unimportant, but the reconciliation about what something look likes in blueprint vs. what it looks like in someone’s mind are often at odds and so getting into that early on is imperative to getting it right.
- Feasibility — this extends beyond the financials and into the community, asking questions like does it make sense in the context of what the community wants and needs.
- Long term view of exit from debt — organizations will take on debt when working with us, so a realistic view of their long term plans about how to move beyond that is key.
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.
At IFF, when we talk about access, yes we’re talking about access to capital and consulting, but we are also talking about access to information and “the room where it happens.” Our work is rooted in the assumption that the nonprofits and communities we work with are asset-rich and are experts in their own stories. In communities of color, and I think of Chicago’s South and West sides in particular, I want to see a space for reciprocal learning where community leaders and changemakers can share their realities, needs, and desires directly with funders, government stakeholders, and other influencers; and in return the funders/influencers are sharing information about how systems work.
Imagine a sort of reverse conference where community members share in their own words and leaders in the private/public sector learn and offer support. This creates an opportunity for co-creating community development plans that make sense. One of the biggest challenges for communities is leadership turnover at the nonprofits that serve them. When these leaders depart, they take critical knowledge that financial capital can’t easily replace. A conference like this would encourage an entire community to gain systems level knowledge while challenging the assumptions of the private and public sector.
Key identities I see for IFF’s Office of the Executive Director, Chicago Metro is that of intermediary, coordinator, and convener with a specific expertise at the intersection of facilities and finance and an understanding of place and the enabling environment. This gives us a point of view about how harm is done when there is misalignment in the community development ecosystem. I believe whole-heartedly that if the system starts to see communities differently, because they experience it for themselves, then the barriers communities encounter to accessing capital would begin to change and the solutions and supports that are typically offered for communities would begin to be informed by and designed with communities, leading to deeper and long-lasting impact. In the long term, an opportunity like this could shift the way we talk about neighborhoods and the way communities are enabled to tell their own stories. It’s the difference between playing gatekeeper and giving someone the keys.
If you could tell other young people one thing about why they should consider making a positive impact on our environment or society, like you, what would you tell them?
Everyone should participate in the world that they want. Going back to what I mentioned earlier about the various identities we all hold, as individuals and organizations, the Building Movement Project has a framework — the Social Change Ecosystem Map — that lays out the different roles individuals can play in pursuit of social change. It helps people see all the ways they could show up, grounded in their own power and strengths, to drive social change efforts. Are you a storyteller? A guide? A frontline responder? A visionary? A disrupter? A healer? Not everyone can be the visionary or the disrupter, some of us will be doing the invisible work that enables and catalyzes action, and there’s no way to bring about positive change if everyone takes a spectator role.
We are very blessed that a lot of amazing founders and social impact organizations read this column. Is there a person in the world with whom you’d like to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this.
Michelle Obama. As First Lady, she occupied roles of wife, mother, daughter, and so many of the different identities that we take on, while being married to (at one time) the most powerful person in the world, President Obama. She did a fantastic job of making plain her commitments to family while also being an incredible public leader. What made that possible? Hearing her perspective first-hand — giving voice to the trade-offs and bringing to light that invisible work of being a human being — would be reaffirming and inspiring.
How can our readers follow you online?
Connect on LinkedIn (https://www.linkedin.com/in/o-victoria-vickie-lakes-battle-a8bb2139) follow IFF on social media @IFFcdfi, sign up for our newsletter. Learn more about Chicago’s Cultural Treasures. (https://chicagosculturaltreasures.org/about-us/)
This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success in your great work!
Social Impact Investors: How O. Victoria Lakes-Battle of IFF Is Helping To Empower… was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.