Profile: Sakura Takano, CEO, Rotary Charities of Traverse City July 12, 2021

After growing up in Hawaii, earning a bachelor’s degree at Boston College, and beginning her career in investment banking in New York City, Northern Michigan might not be where you’d expect IFF Board Member Sakura Takano to have ended up, but it’s exactly where she’s meant to be.

In May 2021, she was named the CEO of Rotary Charities of Traverse City, which supports the development of community assets and systems change initiatives to increase quality of life in a five-county area in Northern Michigan. Her appointment as CEO is the culmination of a decision she made 15 years ago while working at JPMorgan Chase to pursue a career focused on impact instead of profit.

As Takano transitions into her new role, we interviewed her to talk about how she got to where she is today and what she’s focused on as the leader of an organization dedicated to regional changemaking.

IFF: You’ve taken a unique path to where you are today, both geographically and in your career. Can you tell us about it?

Takano: It would be a pretty unusual path to plan, and I didn’t. I was born and raised in Honolulu by a father from Japan and a mother from Taiwan, then spent time in New England and New York City before ending up in rural Michigan. I’ve always had an open mindset, and location has mattered less to me than letting opportunities meet me along the way.

In a Nutshell

What: Q&A with Rotary Charities of Traverse City CEO and IFF Board Member Sakura Takano about her new role, her professional journey, and the evolution of impact investing

Sector: Community Development

Location: Traverse City, MI

When I was in the first phase of my career, in investment banking, I reached a point where I was starting to think more about professional fulfillment, and I decided I needed to be doing something that felt more real to me. I began learning about microfinance and lending tools in developing countries, and that was the motivation to pursue an MBA in social enterprise at Columbia Business School.

While I was still in graduate school, I took an internship at the Rockefeller Foundation, where they had just started an impact investing program. I sat near Amit Bouri, who went on to co-found and serve as the CEO of the Global Impact Investing Network (GIIN), as he was working on a whitepaper for the Foundation assessing the potential of impact investing. Antony Bugg-Levine, who is now the CEO of the Nonprofit Finance Fund, was the managing director of the Foundation at the time and also became a co-founder of GIIN.

The concept of using endowment funds to leverage impact and new sources of capital was just emerging then, and I was in the right place at the right time. In the decade after that, I accumulated experiences overseeing direct services to people in need to understand the power of philanthropic partners and how they can help move great community work forward.

IFF: Many of those experiences were in Northern Michigan, where both you and Rotary Charities are deeply embedded. What do you think people don’t know about the area that they should?

Takano: This part of Michigan is a gem. We’re connected to fresh water like no other place on the Great Lakes, and the stewardship of the land and the water by very small, often under-resourced communities is extremely inspiring. Rural communities have to work differently to advocate for themselves and  access resources for the things they need, and that’s something that happens regularly here. Growing up in Honolulu, I never expected to live in a rural area like this, but I feel very fortunate to be in a place with so many community assets.

It’s a significant lift to make loans in-house for any institution, and that’s especially true at a place-based foundation….That informed our decision to invest in intermediaries like IFF that already have the infrastructure and expertise to make loans that support our community development goals.

IFF: You’re in a unique position in your new role to continue to develop those community assets. What are you focused on as you look ahead to the next few years?

Takano: We’re at the beginning of our journey in asset-based community development, and that’s certainly something we’ll continue to explore. Resourcefulness really embodies what rural communities are good at and should leverage as they think about what is going to be needed for the next generation. In that vein, Rotary Charities not only makes grants, but we connect communities, their leaders, and changemakers to each other so that they can ideate and collaborate about how to pool their resources and assets together. That will certainly continue, as will our complimentary strategy of providing capacity-building services to help those leaders approach their work with a systems-focused mindset to solving problems.

IFF: Impact investing is also a part of Rotary Charities’ approach to changemaking. What does that look like in practice?

Takano: We embarked on an impact investing strategy in 2016 and, working with our financial advisor, developed an understanding of the staffing and the skillsets we’d need to underwrite deals. It’s a significant lift to make loans in-house for any institution, and that’s especially true at a place-based foundation. There are so many elements that go into making successful loans, including assessing financials and program design, and analyzing risk, among others. That informed our decision to invest in intermediaries like IFF that already have the infrastructure and expertise to make loans that support our community development goals. We help those intermediaries get to know potential borrowers and uncover technical assistance opportunities with local nonprofits on a regular basis.

Our grantmaking approach is very focused on relationships. It includes discussions with potential grantees about their projects and, when it’s appropriate, we talk about other financing options. One example of when this might happen is when housing is involved, because the price tags to develop those types of projects are generally large. We’re pre-vetting the organization during those conversations and connecting them with a lender that can help them achieve their goals and contribute to the community development outcomes we’re seeking.

IFF: Having been involved with impact investing since the concept was first developed, what’s your perspective on how the approach has evolved over time and where it’s headed?

Takano: At the beginning, it really was more focused on the public markets and what social investing looked like in those spheres. Venture social capital was also an area that was getting a lot of market attention in the early days. As much as that was the flavor of the day back then, combining that interest with existing entities like CDFIs allowed people to understand what CDFIs do to provide a bridge to capital through Community Reinvestment Act (CRA) money and philanthropic dollars. That’s a newer entry into the investor pool, and it has broadened what the space looks like.

There are intangible aspects of successful community development—nurturing relationships, engaging diverse voices, and trust.

What has kept me interested in impact investing is that it’s ever changing. Financial markets are constantly creating new ways of looking at an issue or scenario and developing new products to meet the needs that exist. There’s a movement now around cooperatives and individuals using their own capital to contribute to local community resources and assets. I think we’re going to see more of this in the future, where opportunities exist to combine impact investing with local, community-driven investing.

An example of what that looks like is Commongrounds Cooperative here in Traverse City, a 48,000-square-foot mixed-use facility being built that is going to meet a variety of community needs. The project is being financed through a combination of state funding, CDFI funding, and investments from 132 members of the community. It’s labor intensive to get projects done using this model but is a very demonstrative way for people to advocate for what they want in their own communities.

IFF: Any final thoughts?

Takano: When it comes to addressing challenges in any community, it’s not just money that creates positive outcomes. There are intangible aspects of successful community development—nurturing relationships, engaging diverse voices, and trust. The more we can do to underscore those intangibles and facilitate connections between people and organizations, the closer we’ll get to the root level of solving problems that can otherwise feel overwhelming.

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