Published on Nov. 14, 2019 by Steven Vance
Benefit Chicago is a local social impact investment fund launched in May 2016. Whet Moser wrote for Chicago magazine at the time: “[Benefit Chicago is] a community-investment vehicle that, on one side, loans money at low interest rates to people and projects that have trouble getting it from other types of financial institutions, and on the other, returns money to investors.”
The fund is operated by Calvert Impact Capital (which operates other funds), was seeded by MacArthur Foundation, and is advised by the Chicago Community Trust (among other organizations).
For as little as $20, anyone can invest their money online into Benefit Chicago knowing that it will be loaned to locally owned small businesses in Chicago based on social impact goals at a low interest rate and presumably without the kind of discrimination that Black and Brown small business owners suffer from when trying to get loans from big lenders.
I invested a very small amount of money in Benefit Chicago in 2016. I was excited that there was an investment fund that invested in Chicago businesses that a lot of Chicagoans can afford due to its low minimum. Many investment funds and crowdfunding programs have a minimum investment requirement of thousands of dollars and aren’t not necessarily local. I think the concept of Chicagoans supporting each other collectively through small investments is wonderful. I’m not offering investment advice.
For a while, though, it wasn’t totally apparent to me that Benefit Chicago was making any investments, and so it didn’t seem transparent. Fundrise, on the other hand, which is not a social impact fund, but a real estate investment trust, sends email every other week explaining its new investments, complete with photos and a summary explanation of the loan terms.
Fast forward to October 2019; I still like the program and I saw an announcement from Benefit Chicago’s press relations team about two new investments to be administered through the Self-Help Ventures Fund. The fund is operated alongside the Self-Help Federal Credit Union, which entered Chicago this decade when it acquired Second Federal Savings & Loan and Seaway Bank.
According to the Self-Help website, the credit union and nonprofit fund were created by Martin Eakes and Bonnie Wright in 1980 to help “employees in rural North Carolina form farmworker-owned cooperatives and gain ownership of local mills that were being shut down”. The enterprising people were “stopped in their tracks because they couldn’t get conventional financing”.
Darryl Newell, market president of Seaway Bank, described to me the two projects that the Self-Help Ventures Fund is going to invest $5 million in on the South Side.
The Inner-City Muslim Action Network (IMAN) will use a $610,000 investment to partially fund a “healthy hub” in an existing Englewood building near 63rd Street and Racine Avenue. The project, at 1207 W 63rd St, received a building permit in May. Wheeler Kearns Architects is designing it.
“[IMAN] recognized that there’s a food desert there and they took control of an old building. They’re going to renovate it, have a healthy corner store, a café and eatery, and build some training space and office space.” Healthy food, Newell said, is one of the Self-Help Ventures Fund’s “lending segments” because “a lot of people need healthy foods in a walkable distance”.
IMAN is known for their work to change what corner stores sell in Black neighborhoods and improve relationships and understanding between customers and the many Muslim and/or Arab corner store owners. WBEZ reporter Natalie Moore first wrote about IMAN’s “Corner Store Campaign” in 2010, and referenced it in her book, The South Side, in 2016.
The second project that Self-Help Ventures Fund is using Benefit Chicago money for is the conversion of Seaway Bank’s own former headquarters into a community services hub in Chatham. Newell said that “we [the bank] don’t need 40,000 square feet anymore” at the existing building at 645 E 87th St. “We only need 2,400 square feet” so Self-Help conducted a charrette to ask “what do we do with this big old building?”
Disclaimer: MAP Strategies, a Chicago small business where I’m the Director of Urban Planning & Technology, is the permit manager for this project. I am not involved in MAPS’s permit management services.
This is Self-Help’s first project outside of North Carolina, where the community development financial institution (CDFI) started, Newell said. From the charrette, Newell said, “We decided that we needed a community services hub.” Neighborhood Housing Services (NHS) will be a tenant, and there will be a small bank outlet, and the remaining space will be rented to non-profits at a below-market rate.
Additionally, Newell said, there needs to be a center for small business owners to gather and meet, given that the Greater Chatham Initiative’s study found thousands of small businesses in the area “and we and Benefit Chicago agreed that they need a professional meeting place”.
Both of these projects sustain part of the mission of the Self-Help Ventures Fund, Newell said, to expand financing capabilities to include “flexible and risk-tolerant capital which can advance small businesses and have a local impact in Chicago”.
Two South Side community hubs are moving forward with investment from Benefit Chicago was originally published in Chicago Cityscape on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.
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