Wednesday, December 2, 2015

CDFI Cluster Demonstration Project

Alexander Von Hoffman
Senior Research Fellow
In December 2013 the JPMorgan Chase Global Philanthropy Foundation issued a call for proposals for groups of Community Development Financial Institutions (CDFIs) to coordinate financial programs to alleviate problems facing low- and moderate-income communities, small businesses, and individuals. In January 2014 the foundation announced awards, totaling $33 million over a three-year period, to seven CDFI collaboratives. At the request of JPMorgan Chase Global Philanthropy, Alexander von Hoffman profiled the characteristics, objectives, methods, and achievements of each of the CDFI collaboratives in the first phases of their work. 

Purpose and Problems of CDFIs

In working- and lower-class neighborhoods in the United States, stability, let alone opportunity, is hard to come by. It can be difficult to get a loan on fair terms to buy a house or expand a business, particularly where African Americans, Hispanic Americans, and immigrants live. In such areas, there is often no transportation to school, jobs, and shops. In some places a store with the necessity of life – food – is nowhere to be found.

Yet conventional banks are often reluctant to make loans for such specialized and sometimes risky purposes. Fortunately, in recent years, federally funded nonprofit lending organizations – known officially as community development financial institutions or CDFIs – have moved in to fill the gap in credit for these needs.

CDFIs are engaged in a demanding business. Their customers may be inexperienced in formal banking or have challenging circumstances – such as a recent home foreclosure, the launch of a new and untested business venture, or even the lack of legal citizenship status.

To provide credit in such situations requires that CDFI officers learn about their clients’ situation and craft appropriate solutions. They might have to customize a loan product or provide personal technical assistance. In more extreme cases, CDFI officers may have to seek out and educate people about the benefits of proper credit.

Given the nature of CDFIs’ business, many of them find it difficult to provide credit on a scale large enough to make a visible impact on low-income communities. Low balance-sheets, lack of operating capital, and insufficient revenue streams can prevent CDFIs from increasing lending activities or expanding their service areas geographically.

Successful CDFIs have found that one of the best ways to overcome these obstacles is to collaborate with other CDFIs.

The First Round of PRO Neighborhoods Awards

To jumpstart collaborations among CDFIs, in January 2014 JP Morgan Chase Global Philanthropy Foundation awarded seven CDFI collaborative clusters, including twenty-seven CDFIs doing widely different work in diverse locales. In the first phase of the foundation’s PRO Neighborhoods program (Partnerships for Raising Opportunity in Neighborhoods) these grants totaled $33 million over a three-year period.

Although the grant period has more than a year to run, our initial evaluation shows the awards have had a striking effect both on the ground and on the CDFIs themselves.

The award capital and its leveraged investment have helped CDFIs strengthen their balance sheets immensely. The seven collaborative clusters have so far raised more than $226 million, or almost seven times the original amount, to carry out their community development programs.

CDFI members of the clusters have ramped up scale of production and expanded their reach across new geographies and types of customers. They have also devised new methods of communication and lending practices suited to the oft-neglected needs of low-income clients.

The CDFI clusters have undertaken a remarkably wide variety of endeavors, including lending to small businesses that are minority-owned or in low-income neighborhoods, helping mobile-home owners purchase and manage their communities, increasing the provision of fresh healthy food, aiding and financing the minority and immigrant owners of low-rent apartment buildings in Chicago, and generating equitable transit-oriented development in the poor and working-class Latino neighborhoods of Phoenix.

The process of collaborating itself helped boost the participating CDFIs. By meeting, discussing, and coordinating with one another, leaders and staff members learned about obstacles in the field, ways to mesh business cultures, and best practices to achieve their desired results.

Having made a great impact on low-income communities and numerous CDFIs that serve such communities, the first round of the PRO Neighborhoods awards has demonstrated that funding CDFI collaborations can be an effective way to support a wide array of underserved populations. Furthermore, the awards is project has helped to lay the foundations for the growth of these CDFIs that will allow them to expand their programs into the future.

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