Opinions & Insights

Risk, Return, and Impact: A Rare Conversation with Bruce McNamer

Builders Initiative President joined Rare to discuss the transformative role blended finance can play in helping people and the environment. 
February 13, 2024

In a highly attended session of Rare Conversations, Bruce McNamer, the President of Builders Initiative, the philanthropic team at Builder’s Vision, sat down with Brett Jenks, CEO of Rare, to discuss the transformative role of “blended” or “innovative finance” in addressing pressing environmental challenges. The dialogue, part of a series aimed at deepening the understanding of sustainability issues, touched on McNamer’s unique journey from finance to philanthropy and the innovative approaches his organization is taking to foster a healthier planet.

McNamer, whose background spans from investment banking to serving in the Peace Corps in rural Paraguay, shared his insights on the power of integrating business principles with philanthropic goals. “It’s a marriage of those two; it’s how do we think about development, giving people opportunity, and the power of markets to actually transform,” McNamer reflected on his career trajectory that led him to the intersection of business and social impact.

At the heart of the conversation was Builders Vision’s novel approach to philanthropy, which McNamer oversees. This impact platform is dedicated to supporting initiatives across oceans, food, agriculture, and energy, aiming to build a more humane and healthy planet. McNamer highlighted the synergies between Builders Initiative and S2G Ventures, the venture capital team of Builders Vision, and Builders Asset Management, the platform’s asset management team, emphasizing their shared mission albeit through different tools.

One of the session’s highlights was McNamer’s explanation of how philanthropy can finance change in the natural world, not as a paradox but as a potent strategy for sustainable development. He pointed to significant investments like Matter, a company tackling microplastics, as examples of how flexible, catalytic capital can spur market adoption of sustainable solutions. “These kind of opportunities across that spectrum of risk, return, and impact are part of what we’re trying to do here,” said McNamer , emphasizing the strategic deployment of philanthropic capital to catalyze broader market changes.

The conversation also delved into the complexities of managing diverse funding sources and ensuring ethical deployment of resources. McNamer candidly discussed the challenges and the importance of legal and ethical integrity in philanthropic and investment activities. “We’re very purposeful in making sure that as we deploy these tools, we’re assiduous about these conflicts of interest, even the appearance of it,” he shared, revealing the organization’s commitment to transparency and accountability.

Jenks took the opportunity to reflect on how their organizations worked together to launch the Meloy Fund, an impact investment fund focused on revitalizing coastal fisheries and supporting sustainable sea food-related enterprises in the Philippines and Indonesia. With the help of Builders Initiative, Rare launched the Meloy Fund based on the idea that philanthropic investment in improved governance and infrastructure could de-risk investment by governments and the private sector in areas critical to nature and local communities.

“It was really, really hard to pull off,” said Jenks. “Usually, as a nonprofit we offer you a 100 percent loss on capital in exchange for impact. In this case we’re going to guarantee you the most we’re going to lose is 50 percent because we have this credit guarantee. The goal is to be able to bring in others who will put money in a fund that we can invest in sustainably managed fisheries enterprises that employ local people and that improve governance.”

“It was in the service of what you set out to do,” said McNamer. “Because once those small-holder businesses are at scale, the value chain has been developed, and there are buyers, those things begin to sustain themselves.”

Looking ahead, McNamer spoke about the future of philanthropy and its evolving role in environmental sustainability. He stressed the importance of recognizing the limits of market-based solutions and the need for a balanced approach that includes public benefits and social equity. “Markets aren’t going to solve everything…there is a public benefit, there are social goods there that you ultimately can’t even price,” McNamer remarked, advocating for a holistic view of sustainability that transcends economic metrics.

The session concluded with McNamer expressing gratitude for the opportunity to engage with a community of sustainability advocates and underscored the collective effort required to advance environmental stewardship. His insights provided a compelling glimpse into the innovative approaches being adopted in philanthropy, emphasizing the critical role of collaboration, innovation, and ethical stewardship in driving meaningful environmental change.