Impact Investing, Insight, Story

August 10, 2021

Q&A with Raven Capital Partners’ Jeff Cyr: Investment opportunities with Indigenous businesses are growing

CDF favicon

“My call to foundations is, you need to match your charitable purposes with your investing strategy” Jeff Cyr, Chief Executive Officer at Raven Indigenous Capital Partners


In 2017, Raven Indigenous Capital Partners was created to remove barriers to economic inclusion, growth, and wealth for Indigenous entrepreneurs. Founders Jeff Cyr, Stephen Nairne and Paul Lacerte would make capital and expertise available to help animate a re-emerging Indigenous economy. 

Calling itself ‘Canada’s first Indigenous financial intermediary,’ Raven’s first foray into the markets was the Raven Indigenous Impact Fund (I), a venture capital equity fund that provides financing to Indigenous businesses that otherwise wouldn’t have access to capital.  The fund promised investors a targeted return of 6 to 8% over nine years that was competitive with other investment opportunities. Importantly Raven did not just seek “Silicon Valley-like” returns on capital but focused as much on social impact as financial reward.

Today, Raven is in the process of executing on its investment strategy and now offers a full range of business and financing services to ensure entrepreneurs have the resources they need to build strong business models and attract capital. In October 2020, Raven launched the Fireweed Fellowship, a year-long investment accelerator for innovative Indigenous enterprises.

It’s important to note impact investors still expect decent returns on their investments. In 2018, 98% of Canadian impact investment managers said their investments “met or exceeded performance expectations.”

The Catherine Donnelly Foundation has pledged to invest 10% of our assets in impact investments and since 2014 has made or approved 13 investments totaling $2.4 million. Those impact investments are aligned to our core funding areas and are an extension of the Foundation’s commitment to socially responsible investing. The Foundation’s remaining 90% of its portfolio is invested with a high Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG) lens to ensure our money is supporting positive social change and excluding harmful practices.

In an interview with The Catherine Donnelly Foundation earlier this year, Raven’s Cyr said investors now expect financial returns AND social returns from investments. “I think funds that don’t have a strong impact thesis beyond a return, may be in trouble going forward,” says Cyr. “People expect impact for their money.” 

Below Cyr discusses the emergence of a financing market for Indigenous businesses and how foundations can get involved. Quotes have been condensed and lightly edited for reading purposes.

Investments with Indigenous businesses are growing and becoming more complex

“The first investment vehicle we focused on was the Raven Indigenous Impact Fund (I), in part, as a demonstration to prove the investment thesis that indigenous businesses are investable.  That fund’s rate of returns hopefully will be slightly above our early published rates of 6% to 8% – it’s doing well.

The [emergence] of Indigenous capital markets in Canada meant we were always in an ecosystem-building mode, we needed to work in different spaces in order to make the ecosystem workable. One of the things we did were early-growth-stage-of-entrepreneurship sessions and we learned a lot of things about what’s really needed out there and where we are best placed in the ecosystem to help. 

The other thing we learned is that when you work on a venture capital fund, you’re really operating at the enterprise level of the individual and the business; however, we still saw a larger community-wide need. That’s when we started to get into what we call community-driven outcomes contracts, which are social finance tools [typically where governments commit to paying for outcomes], so that required another build. It’s usually all about relationship and engagement, so we started an innovation lab [to help facilitate] outcomes contracts, we did a geo-thermal energy one and now we’re in the middle of a much larger diabetes one.

The other thing that we knew we needed is pre-investment capacity tools or what now is called Investment Readiness tools, so we built the Fireweed Fellowship in response, a year-long investment accelerator which launched in October, 2020.”

Foundations are underwritten by taxpayers: they need to use all of their capital for social purpose

“Foundations with their charitable purpose are fundamentally subsidized by public taxpayers and as a result are mandated to grant 3.5% of their portfolio on an annualized basis. That leaves nearly 97% of foundation wealth, which is primarily in the hands of the market – the stock market [and] it’s primarily invested in large funds, [seeking] a high rate of return.

My call or my admonition to foundations is, you need… to match your charitable purposes with your investing strategy. There’s a lot of capital in foundations in Canada, it’s not as much as the private markets, but it’s still significant and it has the capacity to be nimble and to lead the economy about where to go. That being said, it’s largely not doing that.

Up until maybe ten years ago, there weren’t a slew of investment vehicles, but that’s significantly changed, so you can take socially responsible and environmentally responsible investing to a whole new level.  We’ve seen some foundations turn to 100% impact investing on the endowment side, to me, this makes great sense. 

I think Foundations should be focused and use the granting side to support and build the investing side. Now you’re going to double or triple [social] impacts in this way:  you can build investment readiness in organizations and initiatives that then allow private capital from funds to come in and help them grow. I think we’re going to significantly change the ecosystem if we can get that alignment.

Foundations need to create specific impact investing structures in their organization

Some foundations don’t have internal pathways to talk about impact investing; they have investment committees that are made up of bankers and pension fund managers and people who do traditional finance. You can rebuild your investment committee [with a more diverse group], or alternatively, actually build an impact investing committee and give them a percentage of the investment portfolio for impact investing – basically create the culture and knowledge within the organization to do that sort of work.

So now, you have [finance and impact investment ] committees and often there’s cross appointments between them, so you can come forward to the full board and say, ‘here’s our impact investments, we’re going to do 10% or 20% of our portfolio. If you take $500 million in endowments in Canadian foundations, $50 million of impact investing in the space starts to mean something. One foundation can really support a lot of new projects. 

And from a granting perspective, I would look at things such as collaborative platforms, so the granting itself gets into pools of money, which are not run by an individual foundation, but are a community-led collective. It decreases the administrative burden on foundations, because you outsource to an [external] group, you don’t have to do individual grants.

Economics right now is about extracting the earth’s resources and we’re not good at paying attention to what we’re doing, hence climate change. And the decisions we’re making now are also extractive of future resources – we’re [depleting] the futures of our children and our children’s children. We can’t live in just a consumer-based society where it’s about the next biggest or flashiest item.  We need to think about how we have one planet, so we need to make different choices and impact investing helps us to get to those different choices.

For more information on Raven Indigenous Capital Partners, visit them at