By Stan Austin
In 2011, with the U.S. economy still finding its footing two years after the Great Recession, an idea was taking shape in the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City’s Tenth District.
The concept: A program to help nonprofits and local organizations – often strapped for adequate funding – present their financing proposals to financial institutions, corporate enterprises and foundations considering community investment.
“At that time, regulators were noticing a lack of diversification in community reinvestment portfolios,” said Senior Advisor Ariel Cisneros. He was part of a small Kansas City Fed team that met in the Denver Branch to brainstorm. “And we had been hearing from community organizations that had solid projects in need of funding but didn’t always know who to contact.”
The Investment Connection program soon was born. Ten years later, the program has connected more than $60 million in loans and grants, touching all seven states of the Tenth District, and is being implemented in seven other Reserve Bank districts.
“Funding organizations benefit from learning about economic development opportunities and needs that exist in their communities or at the broader city, county, state or multistate levels,” said Cisneros, who has led the program since its launch and was the first recipient of the Federal Reserve System’s Janet L. Yellen Award for Excellence in Community Development in 2019. “At the same time, community organizations can share information about their missions, the issues they’re addressing, and the resources and funding they need.”
A key component of the program’s success is how it helps depository institutions meet objectives of the Community Reinvestment Act (CRA). Under CRA, enacted in 1977, banks are encouraged to address the credit needs of the communities in which they do business, including low- and moderate-income (LMI) neighborhoods. The Federal Reserve and other regulators evaluate banks’ CRA performance and related factors when analyzing applications for mergers, acquisitions and branch openings. Beyond the regulatory considerations, Investment Connection is a resource to help institutions diversify their portfolios with regard to project types, populations served and geography.
In recent years, Investment Connection has expanded beyond the Tenth District. Reserve Banks of Atlanta, Cleveland, Dallas, Minneapolis, New York, Richmond and St. Louis have launched programs using the Investment Connection model or are developing similar methods to link community organizations with funding opportunities.
“For 10 years, Investment Connection has been a powerful and innovative means of connecting community development organizations with the funding community, including banks looking for Community Reinvestment Act opportunities,” said Federal Reserve Board Governor Lael Brainard. “The needs are great in the communities we serve, especially in light of the devastation caused by the pandemic. The Investment Connection program remains an important tool the Federal Reserve is actively using to help address those needs.”
Geographic expansion broadens the potential impact of the program, by giving more exposure to organizations that operate across Federal Reserve districts and providing a tool that multistate funders can use to find CRA-eligible funding opportunities.
“With Investment Connection, we were able to reach out to a new area without physically being there,” said Nancy Morikawa, Los Angeles-based vice president and community outreach officer at Pacific Western Bank, which entered the Colorado market in 2020 and has funded more than 10 projects in the Denver area through the program. “Investment Connection has truly helped us connect with organizations easily and safely. The proposals are well-vetted, and since I am out of state, I appreciate having the main ‘foot work’ done by the Federal Reserve.”
Structure and impact
With Investment Connection, the Federal Reserve’s role is to facilitate the presentation of funding proposals and requests by CRA-eligible community and economic development organizations. Each proposal is reviewed by bank examiners who are CRA specialists. A searchable database of proposals and related documentation is available to the public at KansasCityFed.org/community.
In the Tenth District, Investment Connection events mainly are hosted by zones, most often in Albuquerque, Denver, Kansas City, Oklahoma City and Omaha. Sessions also have been held in Casper, Wyoming; Lincoln, Nebraska; Tulsa, Oklahoma and Wichita, Kansas. During these sessions, each organization usually has 10 minutes for a representative to “pitch” a proposal and five minutes to answer questions from funders. In some cases, proposals are reviewed in a virtual format apart from the sessions.
“Presenters have commented on how long it would take them to try to schedule individual meetings with up to 70 potential funders, if they could get appointments … Investment Connection does that,” Cisneros said.
Funding requests typically range from $25,000 to $2.5 million, and geographic target areas range from single community development initiatives to statewide efforts. Topics commonly addressed in proposals include:
Although funding is not guaranteed, and some organizations go through multiple rounds of proposals, longstanding relationships frequently are formed.
“Overall, the connections are more than the funding,” Cisneros said, noting that funders often explore volunteer opportunities and other community development engagement as a result of the program. “They are collaborations and relationships that are developed, some for many years.”
The scope of funded initiatives has ranged from the Rocky Mountain Microfinance Institute in Denver, one of the first to make a pitch in 2011, to more recent recipients such as the Nebraska Enterprise Fund (NEF). The NEF provides access to training, technical assistance and capital for small businesses in underserved communities.
“We have strengthened our relationships with existing bank partners and created new partnerships because of Investment Connection,” said Jim Reiff, NEF’s president and chief executive officer. “In fact, our expansion into southwest Iowa – a new market for NEF – was a direct result of participating in Investment Connection. In addition to supporting our ability to raise capital for lending and programming, the connections we have developed due to this forum are invaluable and have supported our growth.”
Adapting amid adversity
Investment Connection’s growth hasn’t come without challenges. The rapid spread of COVID-19 and the resulting economic downturn created additional stress on small businesses and community organizations.
The Kansas City Fed responded quickly in 2020, pivoting from in-person Investment Connection events to a special virtual series focusing on connecting funders with nonprofits disrupted by the pandemic. More than 500 organizations participated in that series, and the program has continued to conduct virtual sessions with robust participation.
“The pandemic strengthened our resolve to leverage the Investment Connection program to assist underserved and underrepresented communities,” said Tammy Edwards, Kansas City Fed senior vice president and part of the team that designed Investment Connection in 2011. “For the past 10 years the program has served as a model for the Federal Reserve System in bringing funders and community organizations together to provide vital services. The impact of Investment Connection will be realized for years to come.”
Go to KansasCityFed.org/community for updated information on upcoming Investment Connection events, program FAQs, archived webinar videos and Community Reinvestment Act resources for organizations and funders. This fall, External LinkFedCommunities.org will share expanded stories of how Investment Connection has built bridges and will explore what’s next for the program.