Perhaps more than any other city in the nation, Chicago’s enduring strength resides in our neighborhoods and the community organizations that assure a vibrant civic life. Combining the skills of advocates, planners, and entrepreneurs, Chicago’s grassroots organizations have protected, salvaged, developed, and rebuilt some of the city’s most vulnerable neighborhoods.

William W. Towns addressing attendees

Eager to share the exciting progress being made, broaden the range of groups applying for loans or investments, and encourage the process of concentration of economic development efforts, Benefit Chicago hosted representatives from nearly 60 community development organizations, financial services institutions, and local convener organizations last August for a forum on impact investing and lending at Malcolm X, a City Colleges of Chicago campus on the Near West Side.

John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation President Julia Stasch and The Chicago Community Trust President and CEO Helene Gayle shared the primary goal of the program: creating partnerships among investors, influencers, and connectors – organizations that connect prospective borrowers to capital – to accelerate economic growth and equity in the Chicago metropolitan area.

Benefit Chicago Executive Director William Towns, highlighted the impact that its loans are already making in the lives of many people, as it helps to grow businesses such as Autonomy Works, a marketing analytics firm that employs young adults with autism and puts them on a path to living as independently as possible, and Garfield Produce, a hydroponic vegetable farm on the city’s West Side, using its capital to increase hiring and penetrate new markets.

Attendees discussing at their tables

Representatives from Accion, Austin Coming Together, Chicago Neighborhood Initiatives, the Community Reinvestment Fund, Greater Chatham Initiative, Preservation of Affordable Housing, the Network of Woodlawn, the North Lawndale Employment Network, Teamwork Englewood, and others, broke into small groups to discuss the concept of clustered development. When the tables reported back to the entire group, several themes emerged: that geographic and sectoral clustering makes a lot of sense, that effective clustering requires collaboration and coordination among many actors in the small business landscape, and that sustainable development requires both patient capital and finance mechanisms that generate real returns.

“Aside from providing access to loan capital, Benefit Chicago plays an equally vital role in magnifying the visibility of small businesses from the community, working for the community,” said Brenda Palms-Barber, executive director of the North Lawndale Employment Network.