Dispatches from Accelerating Community Capital Day at BALLE 2011

August 1, 2011


Accelerating Community Capital Day

At the BALLE conference in Bellingham, Washington, I attended the pre-conference Accelerating Community Capital Day. Considering that the content of the conference is local living economies and the conference this year is in BALLE’s home town, Bellingham, a major piece of the discussion is about place. Bellingham itself has experienced a huge cultural shift to local within the last 50 years that now permeates the town and has saved the economy. So, how do we analyze what our communities need and capitalize on local investments?

Peter Warshall of the Dreaming New Mexico project  did a great job explaining New Mexico’s problems with food security and health issues. A complete analysis by Bioneers of the energy system and agro-ecoregions has clarified how the state can reconcile natural systems with human needs using a systems approach. The resultant “sustainability atlas” changes the way we perceive the issues of deteriorating land and food deserts by visualizing the lay of the land in a new way. Bioneers connected complementary agro-ecoregions to extend the seasonality of growable crops and better meet market needs. This has allowed DNM to develop a successful foodsheds program that feeds the people, restores the land, and improves the economy. In the process new forms of stewardship have been created, making ranchers and farmers into managers of the land. An MA certificate program has been designed to further these issues by teaching how to heal the land and the community at an advanced level.

La Montanita is co-op food market serving a 300-mile wide radius around Albuquerque, New Mexico. The warehouse is at the intersection of Interstate 40 going East-West, and Interstate 25 headed North-South. La Montanita is a well-functioning program, setting the infrastructure for future programs. The program addresses previous food system uncertainties by pre-paying food producers and offering volunteers consumer discounts. The innovatively structured fund, LaM FUND, expands the pre-payment loan program and enables grassroots investment in the program and in the community. Investors purchase interests from a cooperatively-pooled, federally- insured account, and income generated is then proportionately distributed on the basis of the number of interests purchased.

The Local Investing Opportunities Network (LION) is another highly-esteemed, place-based, innovative fund structure, in East Jefferson County, Washington. Small city, Port Townsend, has successfully attracted citizen involvement with a one-to-one investment program in businesses that enliven the community, like restaurants and schools. Local entrepreneurs submit an application and member investors decide individually if they choose to invest their own money into the project. So far there have been zero defaults on loans and investments have been made in about 60% of the projects submitted.

Such presentations at BALLE Accelerating Community Capital Day explore the question of what it truly means to be a community investor. As demonstrated, strong value chains are able to lower risk and thus bring such investments into the mainstream. With local food systems as an overarching theme, it is quite literally about putting your money where your mouth is. See Don Shaffer of RSF Social Finance’s closing day remarks to learn what you can do to accelerate your community’s capital.

BALLE Conference Opening Session

The 9th annual BALLE Conference Opening Session was all about connectedness.   This year, BALLE invited participants to its home in Bellingham, Washington. Executive Director, Michelle Long’s extremely passionate, momentarily teary-eyed speech laid out our common framework: big picture thinking; cooperation and collaboration; expanding local ownership; joining regional resources to regional needs; empowering entrepreneurs in sustainable communities; and, most importantly, together bringing these ideas to scale.

Her goals for BALLE are to interconnect local economies in a diversified network, to link leaders, unleash innovation, and attract investment. Our current paradigm disconnects and isolates us, forcing us to work even harder for change while feeling all alone trying. The BALLE network has been designing lesson plans and building support systems to change this, gaining tremendous momentum over the past year in particular.

With over 600 attendees at the 2011 conference, the energy is kinetic and movement is on the rise.

As Conference Keynote Speaker Jason McLennan of the International Living Future Institute ( stressed, “fundamental change is required.” The living buildings that he ingeniously assembles, although capably self-sufficient, rely on living economies within. The goal is to connect buildings and develop cities that support and nurture “green” lives.

We are forging a relationship economy of co-dependency and collaboration. Resilience requires us to diversify.  With “no room for growth,” that implies working continually towards greater efficiency, stretching limited resources.

As demonstrated by Sustainable Connections ( in Bellingham and fellow conference participant organizations, the realization of these goals will reach the tipping point as local economies become more densely interconnected. Deeper relationships with each other and the built environment and longer-term thinking and planning that contextualize us within the past and future are key to the greater transparency, accountability and collaboration necessary to achieve systemic transformation.

First Full Day of BALLE

David Korten established the mood on the first full day of the BALLE Conference 2011 by telling participants that we are in the midst of a “suicide economy.” As a Board Member and BALLE forefather, Korten identified seven action steps toward a more BALLE-like world ( He then introduced Naomi Klein and her inconvenient truth.

Naomi Klein, political author (, thoroughly enjoyed getting to know Bellingham, a city that celebrates place and values sustainability. She is in the midst of developing a book and movie about climate change. Although cataclysmic, climate change is now perceived by the public-at-large as “so 2008.”  Despite being the most critical issue humanity has ever faced, the concept has proved to be extremely polarizing. Inasmuch as it is nearly impossible to feel the impact of climate change in everyday life, a majority of Americans are now resistant to overwhelming scientific evidence.

Klein sought to gain a greater understanding of the climate change nonbelievers. Not just resistant to thorough, sound science, these nonbelievers are in effect, largely undisturbed by the existing and consequential inequalities between the first and third world and between the rich and poor in our own country. Klein believes that the egalitarian, community-oriented values required to reduce carbon emissions are viewed as threatening to the American way of life,  to the progress of rampant capitalism.

However, as Klein correctly points out, although “going local” is all too often seen as just a trendy idea favored by liberal do-gooders, it is truly an economically viable movement that will mitigate our carbon dependence. As Klein suggests, serving consumer needs on a smaller scale through local producers is the solution for our future.

Through the view of a financial lens, Leslie Christian of Portfolio 21 ( is redefining the terms of investment theory and economic strategy. Modern investment theory is based on the expectation of perpetual growth, but as continuous growth becomes increasingly impossible, financial returns become less predictable. Christian calls her work in impact investing “essential investing” because we must use financial capital to support positive economic, social, and environmental work without which true long-term goals cannot be achieved.

As Korten acknowledged, finance is truly understood in the pursuit of speculation. Ultimately, however, money is just a tool, a means to an end, that must be repurposed to work for us.

Final Day of BALLE 2011

The final day of the BALLE 2011 conference emphasized the power of partnership before conference participants went their separate ways home.

Michael Peck, the first and current Mondragon delegate to North America, spoke about his experience bringing the example of the best and largest  workers’ cooperative to the U.S. He is empowering workers by giving them ownership in their enterprise and metrics have proven this model to be more profitable. Broad-based ownership also provides more economic resiliency. Peck has limited faith in our current “free market” of opportunistic and predatory capitalism. He insists that a stronger economy will result from prioritizing employment over profit.

David Berge from Vancity expounded on the success found in sharing. Offering examples of what we can do with assets instead of earnings, Berge demonstrated the importance of how we dedicate capital. Capital viewed in the context of a broader social and environmental framework coupled with sound market research and a thorough knowledge of specific industries are the keys to building viable new businesses. Vancity is profitable as a result of doing business well. To Berge, partnerships are important because shared information leads to continuing improvement.

BALLE’s new cohort-based program, Community of Practice, is connecting and strengthening eleven select BALLE network leaders to fortify the network infrastructure, provide a resource pool, and offer shared insights into the hardships and complexities of building a local movement. This program will lead to a deeper understanding of the process and accelerate the emergence of the new economy thereby demonstrating the success of sharing.

We are now at a tipping point for the local movement. Sharing best practices and tried experiences is the fastest way to scale-up the local movement and provide an economically sustainable alternative to business-as-usual.–Liana Scobie. Liana is a Fellow with Capital Institute