Just Money: Mission-Driven Banks and the Future of Finance

By Katrin Kaufer and Lillian Steponaitis. MIT Press, 2021. 192 pages. $17.95/paperback; $13.99/eBook.

I was attracted to this book for its emphasis on seeking justice in money systems—an area I’m passionate about. Immediately appreciative of the resource it could offer to those who shared this passion, I had to wonder if a review would be of service to Friends Journal readers in general. I hadn’t read far before being reassured: this book is all about doing business with a deep concern for ethics and integrity, keeping values and mission central. It is rooted in the same spirit that enlightened generations of Quakers in business, and allowed them to have such an outsized influence on the communities around them. While that tradition has grown thin in the last century, we are in new and uncharted times. Perhaps the message of this book can both honor the source that animated our Quaker forebears and throw light on the way ahead.

One might wonder how light could be shed from a sector that is so deeply mired in injustice. “Just banking” almost sounds like a contradiction in terms. With runaway profits and growing inequality, bailouts of big banks by an ever-more-squeezed public, the bleeding of capital from the productive economy in search of ever higher returns in the financial sector, it’s clear that our current banking system requires major overhaul.

Yet mission-driven banks do exist. This book is full of their stories. Triodos Bank in the Netherlands, focused on green businesses and projects, lets its depositors know everything their money is financing. Vancity Credit Union in Vancouver has developed an accessible alternative to predatory payday lending, allowing members to build their credit history in the process. BRAC Bank in Bangladesh does microlending but also runs schools, health centers, and crisis relief operations. They all use finance as a tool to address social and environmental challenges.

I particularly appreciated the discussion about how to bake mission into the heart of a bank—or any other business. The authors note the ease with which lofty goals can be eroded by time, inattention, the pressures of a surrounding culture that doesn’t support them, and the ever-present lure of profit. I imagine this is what happened to some of those Quaker businesses that started out by doing good and ended up doing well. From a “just money” perspective, profit must stay as only a means to the end of sustainable ongoing impact but not the end itself.

The authors offer a three-part prescription involving governance, organization, and leadership: Create a governing structure that keeps the stakeholders in the forefront, building in formal connections between the leadership and those who are affected by its decisions. Develop organizational practices that require attention to mission, such as the Italian cooperative bank that has volunteers from among its members assess potential loans for their alignment with mission and contribution to impact. Stay clear that the intention held by leaders is crucial for the effectiveness of their work; the authors speak of leaders finding a North Star, so they can stay on track as they step away from mainstream models and venture into the unknown.

I also appreciated the discussion of the complexity of trying to measure impact, particularly when the goal goes beyond funding good projects to identifying levers of change, or even collaborating on initiatives that work to effect that change. The authors give examples of all of these. They emphasize the importance of building in ongoing opportunities for learning and for developing listening skills as part of this process.

The book is rounded out by an overview of the banking and investment territory: different approaches to investment, from individual socially responsible investing to philanthropic impact investment; the different players, from credit unions to community development financial institutions (CDFIs) and microfinance banks; and different systems of measurement, from our woefully flawed GDP to the new UN Sustainable Development Goals.

They end with a challenge to move from “ego-system” to “ecosystem” finance, and suggest that the just-banking sector—though currently tiny—might play a significant role in braving the heart of our current darkness and offering models for the future. Short and remarkably accessible, Just Money can both renew appreciation of our Quaker business heritage and suggest present-day opportunities to bring values to the center of our economic systems.

Pamela Haines is a member of Central Philadelphia (Pa.) Meeting. She is the author of Money and Soul, an expansion of a Pendle Hill pamphlet by the same name, and is active in the public banking movement. Her newest titles are That Clear and Certain Sound and a volume of poetry, Alive in This World.

Previous Book Next Book