Charitable Cash Creates Careers

Last week the Door County Community Opportunity Investment Network (COIN) was launched. It is a micro-lending and business mentoring program that will assist entrepreneurs who are starting or growing their business, thereby creating jobs in Door County.

What makes it truly innovative and unique in Wisconsin is that it’s a partnership of the Door County Community Foundation and the Door County Economic Development Corporation – two organizations that typically work in very different worlds. The Community Foundation is all about charity and philanthropy, focusing its efforts on the nonprofit world. The Economic Development Corporation encourages the creation of wealth, centering its work in the for-profit world.

Because of those differences, some might wonder why we’re using private philanthropic dollars to stimulate the growth of for-profit businesses. It’s a roundabout story but one that’s worth telling.

It began three summers ago as a group of three dozen mostly seasonal residents gathered at the invitation of the Community Foundation at Doug MacNeil’s picturesque farm near Baileys Harbor. The goal of the meeting was to have an open-ended discussion about philanthropy and its critical importance to health of Door County.

It was easy for all of the guests to see how arts charities such as American Folklore Theatre, Midsummer’s Music and Birch Creek are a major tourist draw and help drive our economy. Similarly, environmental charities Crossroads at Big Creek, the Friends of Peninsula State Park and the Door County Land Trust preserve and protect our environmental treasures which bring people here and keep them coming back year after year.

What’s more difficult to see are the economic challenges faced by those whose jobs disappear during the off-season. By definition a seasonal resident isn’t here during the off-season, so you can’t blame them for not noticing the changes that come with winter – the lines outside the Lakeshore CAP food pantry, the overwhelming demand for heating assistance from We Are Hope, and the increase in usage of the Door-Tran transportation system. The seasonal nature of our community has led to an inordinate number of seasonal jobs. That creates hardships for those at the bottom rung of the economic ladder when the season is over.

As we explored these issues during the discussion at the MacNeil farm, many of these great philanthropists began to express a heartfelt desire to help those who provide services during the season but see their jobs disappear during the off-season. Thankfully, many of these generous people continue to open their hearts, and their wallets, giving back to those in need through the charities of our community.

While there will always be the need to make investments in human service programming, many of the philanthropists at that meeting on the farm have come to realize that a stable, year-round job with decent pay and benefits is far more effective at changing lives than any human service program we could create.

So we began to galvanize around an idea first proposed by David Eliot of Baileys Harbor. He noted that there are trusts, foundations and charities in Door County that control tens of millions of charitable dollars which are invested in for-profit businesses through the stock and bond markets. Eliot argued that we should build a pool of private philanthropic dollars which could be invested in local businesses, stimulating economic activity in Door County, and eventually leading to more employment opportunities during the off-season.

Many of the early discussions involved local business owners who were successful examples of the kinds of companies we wanted to stimulate in Door County. These businesses might have started out with a single employee, but over time they’ve grown into vibrant enterprises that employ a dozen people or more. In the grand scheme these are still modest companies, but collectively they form the backbone of employment in Door County.

What we learned is that the new entrepreneur who needs $20,000 or $25,000 in capital to start or expand their business has few good options. These borrowers seeking “micro-loans” find it difficult to access traditional sources of lending. Government loan pools often have so many strings attached that they are not practical. We also visited with our local banks to seek their counsel and they agreed that there is a need for what has become the COIN Micro Loan Program.

Of course, these entrepreneurs are considered a higher risk and that’s precisely why they aren’t being served by traditional lenders. To mitigate COIN’s risk of lending to them, we’ve created the COIN Business Mentoring Program. We are tapping into the remarkable talent of business executives who have retired in Door County and engage them as volunteer mentors who can help our new entrepreneurs succeed.

While we know a lot about philanthropy at the Community Foundation, lending money to private business is outside our area of expertise. Hence, COIN was launched as a partnership between the Community Foundation and the Economic Development Corporation because it leverages what each organization does best. COIN is a tool which will help the Economic Development Corporation realize its goal of improving the economic vitality of Door County. COIN will also help the Community Foundation achieve its goal of improving the quality of life for Door County’s residents by creating new employment opportunities.

If you’re an entrepreneur with a great business idea and needs capital, or an experienced business leader who’d like to share your knowledge and mentor a promising entrepreneur, visit COIN online at