Forward Community Investments helped the Goodman Community Center serve thousands of kids and adults.
In 1994, a small group of investors, philanthropists and community developers gathered in the basement at First Baptist Church of Madison to establish the Madison Area Community Loan Fund -- a group with much more ambition than its dry name suggested.
"They wanted to end homelessness in Madison," says Salli Martyniak, current president of that organization, which later became known as the Dane Fund and ultimately morphed into Forward Community Investments in 2005. "Then they realized that goal was a bit lofty and beyond their reach."
The group's first-ever loan was $68,000 to the Madison Community Land Trust in 1996 to develop Anniversary Court, a permanently affordable multifamily condominium on Madison's east side.
Today, Forward Community Investments provides affordable loans, small grants, financial and organizational advisory services, and workshops and webinars for Wisconsin nonprofit organizations. FCI has been able to do so much good for so long, thanks to investments at below-market rates from banks, credit unions, religious institutions, labor unions, businesses and individuals. Individuals can invest, knowing that their money is staying in the community. FCI offers those investors up to a 2% return rate, and then turns around and loans that money to other entities at interest rates of up to 4.5%.
It's loaned $50 million (in amounts from $5,000 to $1 million) to 150 projects throughout Wisconsin, ranging from affordable housing, daycares, charter schools and food kitchens. The default rate on those loans is less than 1%.
Madison arguably wouldn't be the city it is today without the efforts of FCI. Here are some of its key contributions:
Goodman Community Center. FCI helped Goodman secure $6 million in New Markets Tax Credits to purchase and renovate a vacant factory on Waubesa Street. The project increased program visibility and space, and added a gymnasium and fitness center, art rooms, a student-run cafe, a food pantry and after-school activities. Today, the building is on the National Register of Historic Places, and the center has become a community hub and meeting place for thousands of kids and adults. (FCI also loaned the center $60,000 for pre-development expenses.)
Badger Rock Middle School. This public charter school for students on East Badger Road opened two years ago. It focuses on cultural and environmental sustainability, urban agriculture and community-based learning, and boasts one of the highest student attendance rates in the district. Also located on the same site are the Resilience Neighborhood Center and the Madison arm of Growing Power, a national nonprofit that works to provide equal access to healthy, safe and affordable food. Loans from FCI helped finance the first phase of the project, and FCI provided technical assistance in leveraging additional equity that should enable further expansion.
YWCA Madison. In 2012, FCI absorbed the Wisconsin Community Fund, giving it a grant-making arm to complement its primary role as lender. Consequently, FCI awarded a $6,000 grant to YWCA Madison to train volunteers in facilitating community discussions focused on the "Race to Equity" report published last year by the Wisconsin Council on Children and Families. That report found that Dane County has some of the most severe racial disparities in the United States in such categories as health, education, economic stability and the criminal justice system.
"What we really need to do is look at solving these problems at their root, rather than just putting a Band-Aid on them," Martyniak says.
Like many fundraising organizations, FCI endured tough times during the recession, but has bounced back with a robust new vision and mission that includes a greater presence throughout Wisconsin. The organization has client relationships in more than half of the state's 72 counties, with one-third of its efforts focused in Madison, one-third in Milwaukee and the rest throughout the state.
Last month, FCI inaugurated a year-long speaker series to mark 20 years of operation. The series will make its way around the state in an effort to begin conversations about the inequities in communities and the impact community development financial institutions like FCI can have on area nonprofits.
One of the organization's core missions is to redefine the perception of not-for-profit organizations. "People tend to think that nonprofits are poor stewards of money," Martyniak says. "They are fabulous stewards of money. And our goal is to help them become even more responsible with that money."