Go with the Slow

IF you happen to be ambling down Main Street in Barre, Vermont,
a quaint green-and-red storefront might catch your eye; the aroma
of fresh-cooked bacon or burgers and fries might attract your nose.
Welcome to Farmer’s Diner, Tod Murphy’s locally owned restaurant.
It’s not only a great place to eat but also a showcase of many
folks’ commitment to revive rural economies by promoting locally
grown food.

‘We are shortening the road from the farm field to the diner
plate,’ reads the diner’s mission statement. What makes that
possible is support from investors willing to earn a lower rate of
return in order to nurture community-based businesses. Though that
may not be the kind of sales pitch your average venture capitalist
expects, businesses like the Farmer’s Diner are exactly where
social venture capitalists like Woody Tasch and Cathy Sutton are
looking to put their money.

Tasch, chairman and CEO of the socially responsible business
network Investor’s Circle (IC), and Sutton are champions of what
they call ‘slow money.’ The idea grew from Tasch’s interest in
‘slow food,’ a movement originating in Italy that combines
ecologically sound food production and support of local farming
with a commitment to the finest traditions of cooking. ‘The spirit
of slow food,’ says Tasch, ‘should be applied to financial
markets.’

‘Slow money’ investments are practiced on a smaller scale —
involving thousands of dollars rather than tens of millions — and
they use creative investment vehicles instead of relying solely on
stock deals. From a venture capitalist standpoint, investing in
slow-to-grow companies like a Main Street diner is risky, but it’s
what Sutton calls rational. Because Farmer’s Diner owner Tod Murphy
is commited to staying local, his transport and handling costs are
minimal. While the business may not produce a high rate of return,
it produces reasonable profits that circulate more widely
throughout the community. ‘It’s a self-fulfilling process,’ Sutton
says. ‘If [you] are buying locally, the locals will support you, so
you are breaking even and making money.’

A Web search or a trip to your local business library may not
produce much information on ‘slow money’ (at least not yet), but
this hybrid of philanthropy and investment is showing up in more
and more business discussions. The Business Alliance for Local
Living Economies (BALLE;
www.livingeconomies.org)
is a collaboration of business networks working together to
‘equitably increase prosperity, strengthen community, and ensure
healthy local environments’ by investing in local communities and
the people who live there. The Slow Money movement and BALLE share
a common bottom line: invest over time in small, sustainable
businesses that feed and support the local community. Investors
like Tasch and Sutton think such an approach will provide fruitful
returns of more than just the financial sort.

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