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Invest Local

by Miriam Axel-Lute on May 11, 2011

I recently got to hear Robert Eggers, the blunt, energetic founder of the DC Central Kitchen. He likes to talk about the power of the non-wealthy’s collective economic decisions: Bus riders’ pennies in Montgomery, average folks avoiding table grapes grown in California, salt purchases in British-controlled India. He also likes to suggest that “buycotts”—turning business to something that is doing well—are more inspiring that boycotts.

While I think there’s still a place for the old-fashioned boycott, I’m quite fond of focusing on the positive, putting your money where your mouth is. This is part of the success of the Buy Local movement, I think (and the numbers say it is in fact having some success). So how about the next step: Invest Local. What can you do with your nest egg—even if it’s as paltry as mine—that supports your values?

I and others have spent plenty of time recently rehashing in many forums the dangers of allowing there to be banks that are “too big to fail,” and how putting money in the stock market is basically speculation, not investment.

But there are ways, even if you are not wealthy enough to hire a financial advisor, to take a chunk of your money outside the traditional banking system and invest it directly in something worthwhile. You may not get windfall returns in a bubble market, but you can put your money to work at least as powerfully as if you’d donated it, and earn a return.

If you are hands on, and interested in international loans, you can pick borrowers and make truly micro loans at Kiva.org. If you want to go through an established national community investor, you can put your money into Calvert’s Community Investment notes, or look up Green America’s listings of similar community investment possibilities.

But how about really investing locally if you’re not wealthy enough to drop equity stakes into particular businesses or developments? There are some truly local options as well.

If you are a patron of the Honest Weight Food Co-op, you can make a loan to support their building of a new store. It will be, no surprise here, a green building, enable the store to expand its offerings and improve its currently crowded shopping and parking experience, and create several new jobs in the West Albany area, while continuing to support local farmers and donate a percent of profits back into the community. There’s a business to invest in. You can also make investments as small as $25 through their “Building Blocks” option, redeemable for $30 in store purchases after seven years. For more info on making a loan to the new building, see hwfc.com.

If you want to invest locally, but with a diversified portfolio, supporting a wide range of local small business owners—many of the same ones a buy-local supporter might be choosing to patronize as a customer—as well as nonprofits and low-income homebuyers and homeowners, there is the Community Loan Fund of the Capital Region. Hopefully you got to read the article Metroland wrote on the loan fund in the Local Business Issue [“A Leg Up,” May 5]. The Community Loan Fund has probably at some point quietly enabled several of your favorite local businesses and causes across its 11-county footprint. It has made $27 million worth of loans since 1985, creating or retaining more than 960 jobs, financing more than 920 housing units, and leveraging an additional $120 million worth of funding. Investor repayment rate: 100 percent. (Full disclosure: I think the loan fund is great enough that I’ve recently joined their board.)

I’m willing to bet that many folks in my generation don’t really think of ourselves as “investors” and have probably not really thought of a place like the CLF as something relevant to us. But if you’re vaguely uncomfortable with wherever you have that couple thousand of long-term savings stashed, or you want to be helping your community but have maxed out your donations budget in a hard year, give it some thought. If you want to find out more, and meet some of the loan fund’s borrowers (including bison farmers!), they are hosting their annual tour next Tuesday, May 17. See more and RSVP at mycommunityloanfund.org.

(And while you’re at it, if you are looking to start or expand a business or finance a project for your nonprofit, they are looking for borrowers!)

As Doug Henwood of Left Business Observer has written, we are not going to solve the problems with the financial sector merely by moving our money around. We will need political will and political solutions as well. But while we work on that, we can also put some of our money directly to work building stronger communities.