Monday, October 24, 2011

CDFIs: Under the Radar No More

There are so many interesting issues brought up by the Starbucks "Create Jobs for USA" program, the subject of my last blog post. As noted, Starbucks will take donations from customers and pass them along to the Opportunity Finance Network (OFN), a network of community development financial institutions, or CDFIs. OFN will then make grants to individual CDFIs that apply for the funds. Joe Nocera of the NY Times points out that CDFIs, which lend to underserved communities and entrepreneurs, operate "mostly under the radar." Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz had never heard of them before an employee proposed the partnership. Nor have most people.

That is a shame, because these organizations do an enormous amount of good. In particular, community development loan funds, a type of CDFI, engage in the sort of relationship-based lending long abandoned by big banks and even many smaller ones. Rather than simply rely on credit scores and cookie cutter lending models, CDFI officers meet face to face with entrepreneurs and assess whether they have the knowledge, character and business savvy to succeed. The 180 CDFIs that are part of OFN have lent more than $23 billion to entrepreneurs and individuals through 2009.  In 2008 alone, they made $2.3 billion in loans, including to more than 51,400 micro-businesses that created or maintained 223,738 jobs.

All the more amazing, they did that with a minuscule charge-off rate—1.3%—that would make Bank of America green with envy.

How are they so successful? For one, because CDFIs focus on a particular region, they are intimately familiar with the neighborhoods they are lending into. And, when a borrower runs into trouble, they work with her to avoid a default. (Imagine your megabank lender doing that!) They also seem to be pretty good judges of character.

Community development loan funds get their capital from big banks, which give them low-interest loans as a way of fulfilling their Community Reinvestment Act mandates to lend locally (something the big banks are no longer equipped to do well themselves). They also receive grants from foundations, to help pay for operating expenses or create reserve funds for losses. Although they haven't marketed themselves, many community loan funds also take investments from individuals. 

Typically, individuals can make an investment—usually a minimum of $1000, but sometimes lower—for a period of one to several years. In return, they receive a modest fixed return, typically 1% to 3% for a short term loan and up to 5% or more for a 10-year loan (based on current rates), with principal returned at the end of the loan period. It's like a locally-focused CD, except that the funds are not FDIC insured. But then, it is rare, if not unheard of, that a loan fund does not return capital and keep to its promised rate of return—even throughout the financial crisis.  Best of all, as an investor, you know that your money is going to work in your community and helping budding entrepreneurs get a foothold—not generating trading profits or lining some fat cat banker's pockets.

The Starbucks campaign is shining a light on these under-appreciated financial institutions. But if you'd like to do more than donate a five-spot, consider investing in a CDFI in your region—there are more than 800 certified CDFIs across the country, so most regions have one. The Coalition of Community Development Financial Institutions offers a search tool on its site at CDFI Coalition www.cdfi.org. The Opportunity Finance Network offers one as well at opportunityfinance.net.

Another easy option is to invest in Calvert Foundation Community Notes, which invests the money in CDFIs across the country (you can choose which region you prefer). An advantage of the Calvert Notes is that they are available through most major brokers (I bought mine through Charles Schwab—and it's about the one thing in my portfolio that hasn't lost money this year!) For more information, go to www.calvertfoundation.org/invest/how-to-invest/community-investment-note. You can also invest in community development loans funds, including Calvert Notes, on www.microplace.com/.

And, if I may close with a shameless plug, if you are interested in learning more, I devote a chapter in my book to CDFIs. I call it "The Biggest-Impact Financial Sector You've Never Heard Of."

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