By: Thelma Johnson, CEO of Albany Community Together! (ACT) & Christine Reeves Strigaro, Executive Director of The Sapelo Foundation
Albany Community Together! (ACT!) is a Community Financial Development Institution (CDFI) that is based in Albany, Georgia. It provides capital, coaching, and connections to support small businesses in southwest Georgia. Its combination of loans and vital technical assistance help those small businesses survive and thrive, especially when earlier in 2020 Albany, Georgia had the fourth highest rate of COVID-19 cases globally.
The Sapelo Foundation is a private, family foundation that is based in Savannah, Georgia and works statewide. It utilizes 100% of its capital – including grants, mission investments, convening space, thought leadership, and advocacy – to advance its mission: “We strive for a just Georgia, through partnerships and solutions that increase environmental protection, social prosperity, and civic power.” In 2020, The Sapelo Foundation recently launched its new strategic plan, new grantmaking process, new website, and new mission investing journey.
When you’re a hammer, you think everything is a nail. So, when a foundation identifies itself as only a grantmaking partner, it may try to solve problems and catalyze opportunities with only grants – an important, but single tool that has limitations. For instance, quantitatively, grants only comprise about 5% of all of a private foundation’s financial capital. So, when a foundation also identifies as a mission investing partner, suddenly it has many more tools available (such as PRIs), and it can unlock and leverage the remaining 95% of its assets to align with its mission. When 19 times more financial capital is available, more good work happens. Just as The Sapelo Foundation would not want a grantee partner to only use 5% of its capital towards its mission, The Sapelo Foundation does not want to only use 5% of its financial capital.
Partnership History: In May 2018, The Sapelo Foundation awarded a collaborative grant to both ACT! and its sister CDFI, Access to Capital for Entrepreneurs (ACE). Then, in October 2019, staff and trustees visited ACT! in Albany for an illuminating site visit. In September 2020, The Sapelo Foundation awarded ACT! with its first Program Related Investment (PRI), in the form of a loan for $100,000, at 0% interest, for a duration of three years. A PRI can sometimes be thought of as a recyclable grant, but it can come from the 95% (endowment), not only the 5% (grants). One goal of this first-ever PRI for The Sapelo Foundation was to support ACT! and its extraordinary work, vision, leadership, expertise, and partnership with entrepreneurs in greater Albany. Another goal was to complement its grantmaking work in Albany with a PRI. To learn more, please read this press release.
Q&A: The following is a Q&A with The Sapelo Foundation’s Executive Director, Christine Reeves Strigaro (a mission investing partner) and ACT!’s CEO, Thelma Johnson (a mission investee partner).
Christine (The Sapelo Foundation): In less than three months, how did ACT! leverage the first $1 million from the PRI that you received in September 2020?
Thelma (ACT!): The PRI was the beginning of a very successful 2020 fund development plan. As we applied for grants, we had to identify existing foundation relationships and any pending applications. We found that one of the most attractive elements of our proposal, was our diverse funding. We had relationships with foundations, specifically The Sapelo Foundation’s PRI. The confidence that The Sapelo Foundation had in us directly attracted other funders to learn more about and invest in our work. With the success of the PRI, we no longer dreaded the other funders’ worksheets that were required with almost every proposal. Full speed ahead, we applied for the Wells Fargo Open for Business Fund. We were able to leverage our PRI to attract additional funding in the amount of $1 million to assist 30 businesses with immediate recovery and provide credit enhancements to move towards recovery and relaunch.
Christine (The Sapelo Foundation): You have talked with The Sapelo Foundation about a “domino effect.” What do you mean by that?
Thelma (ACT!): Since the Sapelo PRI, we have had the domino effect of attracting investments. We believe that the PRI showed a diverse balance sheet that has allowed us to leverage our existing relationships to grow our capital for loans and capacity support. We are very grateful and thankful for the risk Sapelo took to show that ACT! has a sound balance sheet that warrants supporting our mission.
Specifically, since receiving the PRI from Sapelo and the Wells Fargo Open for Business Fund, we have been approved by Opportunity Finance Network through its Grow with Google Initiative for a 10-year, $1 million loan and a $150,000 grant to support operations. ACT! has been able to attract over $2.1 million dollars this year and since June 2020. We were also invited to apply for another PRI from The Nathan Cummings Foundation for $250k; however, the board decided to hold off after the Wells Fargo announcement.
Christine (The Sapelo Foundation): Can you share more context about what happened before the PRI, and how you are thinking about 2020 and 2021?
Thelma (ACT!): As we look back over 2020, we are forever reminded of the tremendous losses. Despite the pain and agony 2020 has brought, ACT! is positioned to make meaningful impact in our market. As for 2021, we plan to implement our strategic plan goals of increasing our staff capacity and scaling our loan portfolio.
Christine (The Sapelo Foundation): Are there any closing thoughts that you would like to share?
Thelma (ACT!): Without strong and successful fund development, fundraising, and grant writing strategies, nonprofits face the difficult task of attracting investments to achieve true mission-driven work. We, in the nonprofit world, understand that there are no programs without people. If we are not able to cover operating expenses from program income, we must subsidize it with our fund development strategies. ACT! has been in that pivotal point of operating soundly, but never being successful in attracting significant investment to move the organization forward. ACT! has been successful in receiving government grants, and in developing partnerships with local governments, but the ever-elusive private foundations were not knocking at our door.
The PRI from Sapelo has helped change that conversation.