Nonprofits and social enterprises generally lack extra funds to help out if things go wrong. Unlike traditional businesses, it’s hard to develop a rainy-day fund when donors (or investors) expect most of your money to go toward changing lives.
At the same time, the chance that something will go wrong at some point is all but certain. Many cause groups work in small teams with a network of equally bootstrapped partners, often in remote or politically unstable areas. If one small financial issue occurs, everything could topple like dominos.
Open Road Alliance is a philanthropic initiative set up to prevent such scenarios. Since launching in 2012, its provided $13 million in emergency grants or loans to organizations that might have otherwise folded. As Fast Company has reported, ORA has joined another effort alongside several major funders to rethink the issue. Called The Commons, it has provided, among other things, a toolkit for groups and funders to assess and plan for mission risks. But the group has also doubled-down on how to provide short-term monetary assistance.
This month, ORA launched a low-interest loan fund called Open Road Ventures, which has committed to distributing $50 million to groups in need over the next five years. “Financial instruments for nonprofits and social entrepreneurs are oddly missing in the philanthropic and social impact sector,” says founder Laurie Michaels in an email to Fast Company. “I think it’s crazy that these entities don’t have the same access to working capital and credit lines that purely for-profit businesses do.” Especially because the goal isn’t just money making, she adds, but to benefit society at large.
Any organization can now apply for assistance and receive a below-market rate loan with a maximum two-year window for return. As Caroline Bressan, ORA’s director of social investments explains in an email to Fast Company, the fund will basically cover three destabilizing scenarios: “delays in expected funding” (because some funder or investor had a management hiccup), “Organizational Misfortune” (like a warehouse fire or key staffer getting seriously ill), or “Acts of God or Economics” (devastating weather, devaluating currency issues, or shifting governmental policies).
ORA piloted the concept with $5 million in 2017. “For example, we provided an NGO working in Pakistan with a $59,000 loan when the Pakistani government started interfering with civil society groups, freezing this particular organization’s ability to receive international wire transfers,” says executive director Maya Winkelstein in an email to Fast Company. “We also loaned $220,000 to an East African social enterprise that produces health food after its largest customer, a well-establish chain of grocery stores, went out of business unexpectedly.”
Another early investment was a $392,000 bridge loan to a pay-as-you-go solar farm rental company working in Tanzania and Ghana. The solar group had secured a large contract that was backed by an equality fund that due to “internal staffing issues” had to delay investment. Instead of the business opportunity evaporating, the social enterprise, which works with various nonprofits in these regions, was able to complete the job on schedule, continue operating, and then repay ORA when the original deal went through.
So far, none of ORA’s partners have defaulted, although the group expects about 5% to do so eventually. The return from low-interest rates will hopefully cover that while allowing the group to reinvest in other organizations that may need it in perpetuity. “The impact investing industry has questioned why there aren’t any social enterprise ‘unicorns’ yet,” Bressan says. “We believe it is because these organizations are operating without a safety net–one stroke of bad luck can throw their growth and social impact forever off track.”