The pandemic put the work of Rabo Foundation, an impact financier working to improve the lives of smallholder farmers overseas and vulnerable groups in the Netherlands, at the forefront of the bank’s work.
“There is a lot more interest, also from our colleagues at Rabobank, in impact investing,” says Anouk Grootendorst, an impact investor at Rabo Foundation, which was founded in 1974 by Dutch cooperative lender Rabobank Group.
“There is a realisation that there are more crises we have to deal with besides the pandemic, such as climate change, scarcity of natural resources and social inequality, which was made worse by Covid,” she says in a phone interview conducted in Dutch.
Impact on finances
Rabo Foundation primarily grants loans. Its funds come from a percentage of Rabobank Group profits, plus donations from the lender’s employees and clients.
Last year, the Dutch impact lender allocated €36.2mln to 401 organisations. That was €4.1mln less than in 2019, and was mainly due to the pandemic, Rabo Foundation said in its annual report.
Despite a tough 2020, Rabobank Group promised to keep its contribution to Rabo Foundation at the same level as in previous years.
“They told us they found the work we do very important, especially in this day and age,” says Grootendorst.
While the impact financier spent less money on its programmes, it helped its partner organisations by providing emergency aid through its Covid-19 relief fund.
And in the Netherlands, Rabo Foundation decided to defer interest payments and repayments for its entire portfolio of 180 social entrepreneurs, ranging from ICT companies to hospitality providers.
“We realised that the pandemic would have a huge impact [on our organisations] because everything was shut down,” says Grootendorst.
The decision to defer payments for all of its social enterprises for six months “created peace of mind.”
In addition, Rabo Foundation also provided around €250,000 in soft loans and donations from its Covid-19 fund to keep some of its Dutch organisations, such as the ones active in the hospitality industry, afloat.
“This served two purposes,” says Grootendorst. “First, we wanted to keep our entrepreneurs on board. And second, we didn’t want to let the impact those companies provide evaporate.”
Grootendorst was struck by the “incredible resilience and creativity” of the fund’s entrepreneurs during the pandemic.
Take craft beer brewer Rabauw, which normally delivers its products to the hospitality industry in the Netherlands. This all came to a halt when Dutch bars, restaurants and hotels were forced to close due to the lockdown.
“They went online within a week and ended up extending their market,” says Grootendorst. “For some of our entrepreneurs, the crisis served as a catalyst to expand their business.”
Rabo Foundation also financed a new project, called Farmers for Neighbours, which connects farmers based around the city of Amsterdam with local residents on a minimum wage.
The local farmers, who saw their supply chain dry up during the lockdowns, still provide those in need in the city with fruit and vegetables even after the lockdown has been lifted.
“Everybody wins,” says Grootendorst. “The farmer gets a decent price and isn’t dependent on the world market, while local residents are able to consume fruit and vegetables at affordable prices. A lot of people are better off because of a local solution, which emerged during the pandemic.”
Walking in the city
Covid also changed working practices for all employees at Rabobank Group, who were told last spring they would work from home until September 2021.
“I don't travel to the office any more, but I do travel to our customers more,” says Grootendorst. “In that sense, I don't travel less, but I do travel differently.”
“I no longer have to go to the office for a team meeting or receive a customer at the office, but I go to the customer and meet them on location.”
Grootendorst, 39, spent most of the pandemic in Amsterdam. Not only did the lockdowns give her a newfound love of walking around the city’s parks and natural surroundings, it also made her more conscious of buying locally.
“Instead of relying on the supermarket for everything, I now make sure I buy certain products, such as bread, from a local bakery,” says Grootendorst. “That’s something that I won’t change.”
“I think this crisis has made us realise that together, we can really bring about change,” she says. “Together, we can decide to fly less or even stop taking flights, or we can decide to buy local.”