Turning Ideas into Action with Vancity Community Investment Bank

An interview with VCIB on how to drive momentum through actionable ideas to increase positive impact on individuals in our community.

As we approach the conclusion of our year-long journey through our Uncharted digital event series, we sat down for an interview with Jay-Ann Gilfoy, CEO of Vancity Community Investment Bank (VCIB).

As a values-driven bank, VCIB has a unique perspective on carving a new way forward, and we couldn’t be prouder to have them as our Presenting Partner for Uncharted. Read on to learn why they decided to partner with TEDxToronto and the important work they do in our community through investing in local ideas that result in powerful and sustainable actions.

Why did you decide to Partner with TEDxToronto and why now?

At VCIB, we made a decision to exclusively work and partner with organizations and businesses who focus on making our communities a better place. As a platform for new ideas that have the potential to change lives and move our city, country and world forward, TEDxToronto does exactly that and we’re proud to support your work.

Prior to the pandemic, we decided to name our digital event series Uncharted as we looked towards mapping the future ahead. Very quickly we realized how truly Uncharted the following months would be for us and those in our community. What uncharted territory do you feel your customers are facing this year?

Our clients, many of them charities and non-profits, are change-makers tackling major global challenges. The work they do and the investments they make are not just business as usual, and this year has certainly brought about unchartered territory like no other. With key funding sources dwindling and programming and fundraising events cancelled or postponed, our clients have shown enormous determination and resilience while navigating these unchartered waters to quickly and effectively meet the needs of their communities during COVID-19.  

As you mentioned, funding is critical to community organizations and their initiatives. In your experience, can you tell us what the connection is between investment at the community level and wider-scale change?

That’s an important conversation in the impact space today, because there’s a lot of work going on at the grassroots level and that work deserves more visibility. I think amplifying community stories is one of the things that we should do; but we can also take it further. We’re financing individual projects at the community level, while also demonstrating new models that can accelerate change. VCIB is showing that it’s possible for financial institutions and banks to support communities in new ways, and that doing so is good business.

Do you see more banks and big corporations following your lead?

There are lots of examples, on the corporate side, of how you can still be a successful business and do the right thing. There are major brands in the B Corp movement, for example, that are focusing on impact like Danone and Patagonia.

The conversation around what it means to be a purpose-driven business, or what it means to embrace diversity, equity and inclusion, both from a customer and from an internal perspective, is [also] becoming more and more important. Companies are saying “we don’t want to just sell a product, we want to make some positive change in people’s lives”.

Purpose-driven businesses have become a real movement, which is promising. It’s very encouraging for me to see a lot of progress in a fairly quick time frame driven by, I think, consumer demand, as well as shifting industry standards, mainstreaming of ESG, and new legislation, but the shift will take time. Particularly in banking; financial institutions are not engineered to think about social and environmental impact. So, there’s some learning that needs to happen in terms of changing corporate processes.

Outside of requirements like ESG, or Environmental, Social, and Corporate Governance, how do you think consumers can tell the difference between performative and authentic community action?

I think doing your own research, asking those questions and looking at, for example, if [a company is] a publicly traded organization, or a financial institution, are their auditors reviewing their impact and how? Are they asking questions around “are you meeting your targets?” That kind of stuff can be asked, and a lot of that is public information anyway.

Our external auditor reviews our business including our impact and their assessment asks “are you doing what you said you were going to do, does it meet the criteria that you set”, and having that external validation is really important.

Checking for trusted certifications like B Corp Certification or Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) Certification can help consumers cut through the noise too.

I also think it’s important to recognize that no organization is perfect on this journey. It’s about progress, not perfection. [But] if an organization isn’t progressing at all, I think the consumer has all the power to vote with their feet, or their computer, and find companies that align with their values.

What do you think would be a key to making tomorrow economically sustainable?

The pandemic has revealed and worsened many deep inequities that exist in our society. We know that environmental degradation adversely impacts poor people and communities of colour. And, the people often most at risk from climate change have fewer resources to cope. Meeting the challenge of the climate crisis will require a transition to the clean and fair economy that Canadians want: an economy that creates prosperity, fights climate change, and leaves no one behind.

This also makes me think about economic inclusion and diversity. How do we make sure we’re giving opportunity to those people that need it, so that we can raise the bar? So that we can have equity and climate going hand in hand? We need to address our building envelopes, the cars that we drive, how much food waste there is. It’s systems upon systems upon systems, but I think if we can have a common perspective on how we deal with the vulnerable, then the rest can start to be addressable.

It feels sweeping in scope, but it comes down to the impact on individuals.

Right. It all comes down to what we can do to increase human wellbeing. So [thinking about] our work with Parkdale [Neighbourhood Land Trust*], for example, we’re helping a local community organization create permanent, affordable housing for vulnerable populations. We’ve supported their renovations to improve the housing and make it safer and there are now 15 people benefiting from our first project with PNLT. Soon there will be more as we’ve recently worked with the organization to create a financing model that allows them to rapidly acquire buildings in the neighbourhood to preserve permanently as affordable housing.

*Parkdale Neighbourhood Land Trust is Ontario’s first-ever community land trust, created to preserve land for affordable housing as well as affordable working spaces for non-profits, social enterprises, and businesses run by new immigrants. Learn more here.

It really feels like VCIB is moving in uncharted spaces.

Yes, we all just came through a year where we learned how to build resiliency. We learned to be resilient as individuals and family members, whether we’re dealing with people who unfortunately were hit by COVID, or who’ve got young kids at home, or aging parents that they can’t see, or who live alone. We’ve become so human on some level, through this, and we’ve demonstrated that we can persevere. Now we need to take what we’ve learned and put it into our economic recovery as we go forward, and this means shifting the focus from building individual resiliency to that of systems.

Becoming human, in terms of our systems, is an incredible thought.

Economics isn’t just about engineering financial systems, it’s about serving humans and creating a better future for everyone. If we don’t think like that, we are in a deep, deep crisis that we won’t survive. We need to come together as human beings using all the tools that we have available to advance. I think it’s time for change - I’m excited about organizations moving in this new direction. It’s good to see.

What is giving you hope right now?

The momentum I see is giving me hope. We are certainly seeing momentum happening in terms of the organizations who’ve come through troubling times and are showing resilience. We’re seeing momentum in the government’s announcements. We’re seeing momentum in vaccines - although we all want it to go faster - so I’m excited about the momentum. We’re starting to see real conversations happen, we’re seeing movement in terms of making sure that the issues around systemic racism and discrimination are being addressed, and we’re seeing movement toward climate-friendliness at a much faster pace than pre-March 2020. So momentum gives me lots of hope.

We hope you enjoyed this interview, and that you found as much inspiration in Jay-Ann’s words as we did. From changing our individual circumstances to changing our economic and social systems, momentum starts with ideas put into action. VCIB will return as our Presenting Partner for Uncharted, including for the fourth and final event, coming to you live on March 4th, 2021.

The above interview has been edited for length and clarity. To learn more about Vancity Community Investment Bank and their initiatives, visit their website here.

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