Rural Lender Converts Its Clients’ Needs into Service Opportunity

A rural nonprofit development corporation’s need to serve its widely disbursed client base has led to the launch of a national online portal that provides technical assistance to borrowers who are starting or expanding businesses.

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A community development group’s effort to improve its technical assistance to business borrowers in rural Michigan has resulted in the creation of an online portal that now reaches clients in 31 states.  

Northern Initiatives covers a large 78-county service area primarily in rural Michigan, along with a few counties in northeast Wisconsin. While it worked over the years to provide capital and know-how to small business owners in Michigan and Wisconsin, the community development financial institution (CDFI) knew it had an issue: How could its staff best provide entrepreneurs with support services that improve a business’ chances of succeeding with a start up loan? 

Melissa Sprouse, Owner of HotPlate Pottery and a customer of Northern Initiatives, said, ““I’m so grateful Northern Initiatives was willing to take a chance by helping me secure a loan to purchase all of the assets and equipment.” (Photo via northerninitiatives.org)

The CFI created on-staff “coaches,” who spend their time assisting startup and established businesses with one-on-one strategy, marketing, bookkeeping and other business management help. In a big service area, coaches can spend a lot of time driving long distances, often waiting to provide services while busy business owners get caught working with customers or putting out important fires that emerge. 

To solve this problem, the organization launched an online “customer portal” with information and training that address the most commonly identified business needs.  

“In 2014, we decided to build this customer portal,” said Northern Initiatives President Dennis West. “We started to put together the resources. We produced 10 videos, started to be able to deliver content online for our borrowers, saw that it was promising, and we continued to build out the portal. Now it has 21 videos, six financial calculators, 100 articles and recorded webinars.” 

The online resources are organized around the topics of money, marketing and management. “The platform becomes a way we can deliver more content to our customers, a portal for delivering a blended learning approach where our customers can get access to information, terms and definitions so that coaching sessions can be more productive focusing on strategies and tactics to solve challenges,” West said.  

Northern Initiatives President Dennis West with a customer at the Marquette Food Cooperative. (Photo via Northern Initiatives)

The online platform is offered to all Northern Initiative customers. Currently, 70% of the organization’s customers, more than 300 small businesses, use the online customer portal.  

In addition to solving the problem of staff travel, the online resources also helped to improve the impact of limited staff resources. “Just because you add more loans to the pool doesn’t mean you can add support staff to help the borrowers,” West said. “There’s always a question of where the money is coming from to pay for staff. We couldn’t figure out how to add professional staff to keep up with our growing loan portfolio. We were outstripping our resources.”  

Once the organization built and improved the online resources, they decided to offer the platform to other community development lenders to use with their clients. “In order to help pay for the resource, and to share the valuable resources with other CDFIs, we made the customer portal available to other CDFIs around the country,” West said. “Now the content is available in 31 states.”   

Northern Initiatives plans to convene the other CDFIs  to identify ways to make the portal more useful. “What is working? What isn’t working?” said West. “Who is the platform working for the best? Is it better for women than men? Is it better for Latino customers?”  

Current plans are to improve the online resources in three ways. West said that approximately one-third of organization’s loans are for start-ups. As these businesses grow, “it has become evident through the customer portal users that we need to add content and resources for the area of human resources. We could provide things like job descriptions, best practices for hiring employees, how to evaluate employee performance. … Beginning to look at quality and process development is [also] an area we need to improve.” 

One other critical need, West explained, is translating the site and videos into Spanish. Spanish-language materials are essential for groups using the portal in California and other parts of the Southwest, he said.  

A customer portal offers training and tips answering common questions and problems that can be solved without a phone call or a visit from a coach.

The build-out of the portal was initially funded half from federal sources (the Small Business Administration and USDA Rural Development). The other half came from state and private sources, including local banks and insurance companies.  

West explained how Northern Initiatives’ online is an important innovation for rural economic development. “If we’re going to advance rural economies, we’ve got to be thinking about how we make them more diverse and more resilient,” he said. “Diverse meaning not solely dependent on mining or timber or agriculture, but offering a variety of kinds of businesses and more innovation. That means we’ve got to support startups.”  

“Just to provide capital to people who are going into business for the first time, I don’t think that’s enough,” West said. “We really have to focus on helping these business owners to build their skills, their knowledge base and support them to be connected to peers where they’re learning together. These are pieces that are so critical in successful small business lending. How we accomplish this over a large geography, I think we’ve found a path through innovation.” 

West explained that Northern Initiatives theory of change is based on Jane Jacobs’ idea that “rural communities needed a connection to urban communities because there were three things that they were lacking. One was access to capital. Second was access to information. Third was access to markets. So that’s been an undergirding philosophy for us. We focus not only on the money side, but also on the know-how side.” 

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