Aligning Capital and Justice

In 2015, the Center for Rural Affairs will reach the $12 million mark in small business loans. Aligning loan capital with our values of widespread ownership, control, and opportunity is a core strategy for our work.

How did we get here?

In 1977, the Center published Where Have All the Bankers Gone?, reporting on changes in the ownership structure of banking. Banks were consolidating. When small-town banks joined a consolidated chain, more of their customers’ cash holdings went to big-city banks in the chain.

We raised a flag of caution. If consolidated banking led to an outflow of capital from small towns, local capital needs would go unmet.

It was 13 more years before we launched a small business lending program. Our report, Half a Glass of Water, written in 1989, found high rates of self-employment in rural areas following the economic downturn of the 1980s.

Inspired by the international microfinance movement, our goal was to infuse capital back into local communities. In 1990, we created the Rural Enterprise Assistance Project. It focused on our home state of Nebraska.

Our small business work has confirmed a core belief. When capital is aligned with local needs, individuals in communities generate new economic activity. Each loan we make shows us the truth of that approach. Every small business success is inspiring.

In the 25-year history of the program, we have placed over 1,000 small business loans. The average loan in 2014 was just $17,246.

Since the Wall Street bust in 2008, we’ve seen a rapid increase in demand and a steady increase in small business loans placed. Data bears out our experience.

In 2014, a statewide rural poll in Nebraska found an increasing number of rural people were self-employed. In all, 43% of rural households received part of their income from self-employment. In the most rural and smallest communities, that rose to 58%.

Responding to these trends, the Center launched a Community Development Financial Institution in 2014. In some ways we’ve become like a bank ourselves. But we’re a bank with a mission: put capital in the hands of local people who are underserved by other lenders.

Today, local banks are our closest allies, and small business lending is a core competency. But we see still see unmet needs. New immigrants lack access to small business capital, and some beginning farmers are not well served by traditional lenders. Renewable energy financing, larger small business loans, and demand in neighboring states are all things we are exploring.

What binds this work to our mission is a simple belief. When capital and justice are aligned, local people have the resources to drive opportunity forward in their own community.

Our Rural Enterprise Assistance Project is committed to strengthening rural communities through small, self-employed business development. We offer four essential services: financing (micro loans), business training, technical assistance, and networking. Find out more here.