Nonprofit lender helps Minnesota communities grow

The Nonprofits Assistance Fund makes loans to small businesses and nonprofits that for-profit banks can’t.

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Kate Barr, CEO of Nonprofits Assistance Fund, is pictured with the Aliveness Project’s executive director, Joe Larson. NAF lent the nonprofit $1 million.

Photo: Richard Sennott , Star Tribune

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Technically, Kate Barr hasn’t been a banker since 2000.

Yet Barr last year made the Aliveness Project a $1 million, five-year loan to help it exit its cramped home and move into a long-vacant refurbished warehouse, which now bustles with hundreds of clients daily.

The Aliveness Project’s bright headquarters at 38th Street and Nicollet Avenue S. in Minneapolis features a cafeteria, commercial kitchen, private space for counseling and preventive health meetings, a loading dock, food shelf and ample storage. Founded in 1985, it was monthly serving 1,700 people with HIV/AIDS in its old space, designed for just 400 people.

“We’re kind of like a supportive banker and this was our first $1 million loan,” said Barr, CEO of Nonprofits Assistance Fund (NAF). Barr made the 5.5 percent-interest loan after the Aliveness Project reached two-thirds of its multiyear capital campaign goal of $3 million.

Barr spent 20 years as a banker at Riverside Bank, where she was senior vice president when the bank was sold. She’s been with NAF for 14 years.

The fund is classified as a “community development financial institution,” a nonprofit business that focuses on financial counseling and loans for fledgling and expanding businesses and nonprofits, mostly in inner cities and small towns.

Barr has raised about $19 million in capital over the past decade from individuals, foundations and banks such as Wells Fargo, U.S. Bank, TCF Financial and Bremer Financial. These stakeholders make grants or long-term loans at preferential rates. That money counts as capital that Barr can lend at more flexible terms than a commercial bank. By participating as lenders, banks can meet their obligations under the federal Community Reinvestment Act.

“In fairness, bankers today can’t make these kinds of [small] loans,’’ Barr said. “There are so many regulations. And they can’t get the loan-to-value ratio [they need to secure the mortgage].’’

Ron Zweber, a senior vice president at St. Paul-based Bremer Bank, said “NAF bridges the space between the nonprofit and banking sectors. Not all nonprofit organizations will meet bank loan underwriting criteria. NAF has historically been a direct lender to these organizations. And NAF’s ability to provide technical assistance, training and coaching [also] is very important.’’

Bankers have to make loans strictly based on the numbers and less on their belief in the character and future capacity of the borrower. The tighter loan requirements grew out of stricter regulations that followed the financial crisis and bank bailouts of 2008-09.

The Aliveness Project helps people stay healthy and independent in their own homes. Many work, but most live around the poverty line. Aliveness is a solid community investment that demonstrates to its donors that it is an economical business of compassion. Without the meals, food shelf and outpatient medical and mental health services provided by paid professionals and up to 35 volunteers weekly, many clients would turn to more expensive, government-subsidized nursing homes and public hospitals.

Joe Larson, the Aliveness Project’s longtime executive director, manages a business of about $1.3 million revenue annually, and a full- and part-time staff of about 25.

He plans to repay the NAF loan gradually as the capital campaign proceeds. The NAF loan was critical to buying and refurbishing the Nicollet facility. And it’s on a busy bus line, another advantage because many of its clients use public transportation.

Barr, whose board pays her $130,000 annually, employs several financial consultants, who work with struggling nonprofits, and a loan officer. She has built NAF’s $17 million-plus loan portfolio gradually. It is still much smaller than most small community banks. She envisions a $25 million portfolio within five years.

Wells Fargo, U.S. Bancorp and TCF Financial are NAF’s largest investors over the years. Recently, NAF received $1 million in capital from JPMorgan Chase, part of a $33 million investment that New York-based Chase invested in community development financial institutions nationwide.

The funds will give outfits like NAF access to longer-term, below-market flexible capital to make low-cost loans to other human services agencies, inner-city charter schools and community health clinics.

There are more than 400 CDFIs in the United States, including several dozen in Minnesota.

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