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How CommunityWorks Carolina is Adapting to Meet Community Need in the Era of COVID-19

CommunityWorks Carolina client Candace-Channer Williams is the owner of Motsu Socks in Simpsonville. She received a small business loan and business coaching from the organization.

The Riley Institute’s Planning and Evaluation Capacity Building Initiative (PECBI) empowers nonprofit organizations to foster a culture of organizational learning around data and evaluation. As community needs grow due to the pandemic, we’re asking our PECBI partners what they’ve learned as they’ve adapted their services in this challenging time.

In the second installment of our Q&A series, Impact in the Era of COVID-19, we speak with Latorrie Geer, Chief Operations Officer at CommunityWorks Carolina and a Riley Fellow.

Published July 22, 2020

This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

See all Impact in the Era of COVID-19 interviews

For those who don’t know, tell us a bit about what CommunityWorks Carolina (CWC) does and who it serves. 

We are a nonprofit financial organization committed to building a brighter future for underserved families and communities through equitable lending, investing, and financial education. By providing access to credit for small businesses and entrepreneurs, financing to affordable housing developers, down payment assistance to hopeful home owners, and coaching to those seeking financial stability, we have the goal of perpetuating a robust and vibrant community for everyone. Our equitable financial services have made over a $221-million impact throughout South Carolina.

What community needs has CWC identified as a result of COVID-19, and have they changed over the course of the pandemic? 

Everyone has been affected by COVID-19. In our industry, we immediately saw many of our small business clients, predominately minority-owned businesses, being forced to make very difficult decisions. Along with small businesses, we’ve watched the most vulnerable in our community be disproportionately affected — mainly people of color — financially and physically by the pandemic.

Unfortunately, as unemployment has skyrocketed, there is a higher risk of people turning to payday loans. The pandemic has underscored how smaller minority businesses and low-income households were not prepared for such a severe disruption. Many did not have sufficient cash flow to manage their ongoing business expenses during mandatory shutdowns. Low-income households did not have adequate savings to protect them in the event of job loss or income reduction. Those who lack access to extra or emergency capital have been in need of small dollar consumer services, and businesses have been in desperate need of relief funding. Many of these small businesses and low-income households also did not have access to the necessary technology to take their businesses remote, help their children access online learning, etc.

In addition to these challenges, Black- and minority-owned businesses face a greater risk of permanently closing due to the fact that many offer high-touch services such as cosmetology, hospitality, healthcare, and childcare. They were not in a position to maintain their businesses as others transitioned to remote work. Many low-income workers were directly impacted by closures and social distancing rules that resulted in furloughs and job loss.  Although the federal government has stepped in with stimulus money and eviction protections, there is still great need within the community. Stabilization and recovery for these businesses and households will take a longtime and require significant attention from the service sector and funding sources.

Are you undertaking any new initiatives to meet the community’s needs during the pandemic? 

Absolutely. We are doing everything we can to fill the gap for businesses and consumers. CWC immediately worked with existing borrowers to defer payments when the March 17 shutdown occurred in South Carolina. As a Small Business Administration (SBA) lender, we have helped businesses apply for federal funding like the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP). We have deployed over $2.2 million in PPP loans, assisting more than 174 small businesses and counting. Our average loan size is just over $12,000. More than 40 percent of our applicants are people of color, and close to 60 percent are women-owned businesses. Many applicants report being turned down by traditional financial institutions.

Additionally, our coaches have helped businesses access the Economic Injury Disaster Loans, as well as a number of SBA express and microloans. We’ve been proud to partner with municipalities like Spartanburg, Rock Hill, and Greenville to create local relief loan products for small businesses. CWC also has created three of its own COVID-19 recovery loan products for small businesses and nonprofits. For consumers, we have partnered with Self-Help Credit Union to offer a $1,500 alternative to a payday loan.

Are there any changes that you’ve made to your programs that you might consider integrating in the long-term, even once COVID-19 is behind us? 

As an organization, COVID-19 has caused us to be more flexible and agile than ever before. When we began to realize the impact the pandemic might have on our community, we sprang into action alongside many of our local partners and community leaders. We have created new products, intake processes, and coaching and training opportunities to support existing and new clients.

It’s been encouraging to see how many partnerships we’ve forged with nonprofits, churches, hospitals, and others to provide relief. Though we anticipate a long road to recovery for our community after the pandemic, we are learning more each day. Through embracing technology in new ways and finding the most efficient ways to provide financial relief, we’ve seen that even the most negative of circumstances have positively shaped us as an organization. The pandemic has spotlighted the disparities experienced by businesses, households, and communities we already serve. It has also emphasized the importance of Community Development Financial Institutions (CDFI) like CommunityWorks as front-line responders in providing access to capital, credit, and financing.

What’s been your biggest takeaway from this moment we’re in?

Life is unpredictable. CDFIs like CommunityWorks are created to be a backbone when the unpredictable happens. By resisting the urge to stay in a box, we’ve tried our best to be flexible and embrace the unpredictability as we remain a trusted resource in the community. Organizations, especially nonprofits, must be nimble to respond to the unexpected. Funders, partners, and boards must also allow this flexibility. Having a strong foundation, operating reserves, and technology in place was key for us. Nonprofits that did not plan for such a downturn may not make it through the pandemic. The swiftness and flexibility of our funders allowed us to deploy relief quickly and innovatively, distribute $2.2 million in PPP loans, establish new response programs, and access the technology we needed to go remote. Ongoing investments in these areas will be key.