Deb Nelson of RSF Social Finance on Activating Money for Good

Editor’s Note: This interview in our Feminist Giving IRL series features Deb Nelson, Vice President of Client and Community Engagement at RSF Social Finance.

Deb Nelson, courtesy of Deb Nelson.

1. What do you wish you had known when you started out in your profession?

I wish I’d known what a powerful tool money can be, and how important it is to understand the way people think about and deal with money. Through my previous work at Social Venture Network, I grew to understand and leverage social capital, but I resisted working with financial capital until I understood how to use it to effect positive change. Women have been socialized to believe we don’t know enough about money and we should just leave it to the experts. But you don’t have to be an expert to use money well. You just need to question assumptions about money, understand what it can do and activate it for good. Now, I love working with money and collaborating with investors and donors.

2. What is your current greatest professional challenge?

The greatest challenge I see, and what keeps me up at night, is that the best solutions aren’t getting acknowledged, supported or funded—especially if those solutions are discovered or presented by a woman or person of color. I want to help change that. Three years ago, I worked with a talented group of leaders to launch RSF’s Integrated Capital Institute. We put out a call for advisors, donors, investors and community leaders who wanted to be at the forefront of fundamentally rethinking the purpose of wealth. 

We created a program that teaches fellows how to apply an integrated capital approach (the coordinated use of diverse financial and social capital) to solve complex problems, confront myths about money, and collaborate across a diverse network of leaders. And we invited them to join us in pursuing a simple yet radical goal: creating an economy that works for all people and the planet. We’re now supporting and collaborating with 74 fellows who have a strong focus on environmental justice and climate solutions, bringing resources to underserved communities, and addressing the racial wealth divide.

3. What inspires you most about your work?

I get to work with some of the most innovative women entrepreneurs, donors and financial activists in the U.S.  The first project I launched at RSF is the Women’s Capital Collaborative, a philanthropic initiative designed to help women get the financial support they need to thrive and grow. 

We provide a mix of loans, loan guarantees and grants to provide funding to women entrepreneurs and nonprofit leaders when they need it most. We recently launched a Social Enterprise Crisis Response Fund to provide rapid response grants and loan payment relief to organizations facing challenges due to the COVID-19 crisis. Supporting groundbreaking social enterprises at this moment in time and witnessing their courage and strength in the face of incredible adversity gives me hope.

4. How does your gender identity inform your work? 

I’ve always cared about fairness and started learning about gender issues when I was young. My mom and I marched for the ERA when I was 12 years old. Understanding how often girls and women get overlooked, harassed or abused used to make me depressed. Now it just motivates me to work harder. We’d be living in a much healthier and more peaceful world if women had as much power and influence as men.

5.  How can philanthropy support gender equity?

Philanthropic funding offers the most catalytic and flexible capital, which fuels the crucial social change work that makes gender equity possible. I collaborate with visionary women donors who are using unconventional and effective strategies to advance gender equity. Some are activating their entire portfolios to do this. Some are spending down their endowments, funding truly disruptive solutions. Others are collaborating in radical ways with frontline communities, giving up their money and releasing control.

6. In the next 10 years, where do you see gender equity movements taking us?

More support for gender equity movements, along with increased social and economic disruption, will result in more women and people of color in positions of leadership and influence. This will lead to continued backlash from social conservative groups, but greater opportunities for women, girls and people of color, and more creative solutions to our most pressing social and environmental problems. This benefits everyone. To make this happen, we need to keep listening, stay unified and be persistent. Change is coming, but it’s not going to happen overnight.

More on Deb Nelson:

Deb Nelson came to RSF in 2016 after 15 years as executive director of Social Venture Network. As vice president of client and community engagement at RSF Social Finance, she guides RSF’s field building and client engagement programs. Nelson was named a 2019 “World-Changing Woman” by Conscious Company magazine for her pioneering work advancing economic justice, women’s rights and diversity in leadership. She has written for publications including Conscious Company, See Change and Triple Pundit, and been quoted in Newsweek, Forbes and The New York Times. She has an MBA from the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University.

Author: Julia Travers

I often cover innovations in science, the arts and social justice. Find my work with NPR, Discover Magazine, APR and Earth Island Journal, among other publications. My portfolio is at

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