By Emily Stevenson
Michelle Mapp earned both undergraduate and graduate degrees in engineering, and worked for many years as a logistics consultant. Now the CEO of South Carolina Community Loan Fund, Mapp is using her expertise to orchestrate the flow of capital instead of goods.
“We’re not a traditional nonprofit organization, and people sometimes struggle to understand how their support supports the broader community,” says Mapp. “We spend a lot of time trying to tell the story, help people understand the impact.”
The mission of the S.C. Community Loan Fund is to ensure equitable access to capital, so that low-wealth and rural communities have the ability to finance community development projects to change the health and wealth of those communities. In short, the fund acts as a nonprofit bank.
Typically, the fund borrows capital from financial institutions, foundations, and high-wealth individuals, with financial institutions receiving Community Reinvestment Act (CRA) credit for lending the group money at below-market costs. The fund pools the borrowed money with grants from governments, other nonprofits, and individuals, and lends it back out for community development projects.
In a world of straightforward charities with an immediate emotional connection, it’s often hard to drum up support for a convoluted, dollars-and-cents group. Mapp says part of the problem is that the fund isn’t a “warm fuzzy” organization like Habitat for Humanity, where individuals donate money and can then see volunteers out there with a hammer and nail building the house.
“Some people have a hard time wrapping their head around the fact that they’re going to give money to this organization, and then this organization is going out and borrowing capital, and then we’re going to lend it to other organizations to do community development projects,” she says.
Mapp became interested in community development after moving back to Charleston with her husband. She participated in the PACE program for educators and became a math teacher in Charleston County, but soon realized that teaching was the tip of the iceberg.
“Very quickly, I realized that a lot of the challenges facing the schools had more to do with the community that surrounds the school,” she says. “That piqued my interest in community development, economic development, and local government.”
Mapp then decided to attend the College of Charleston’s joint-degree program with the University of South Carolina to earn a master’s in public administration. As part of the program, students were required to do an internship. Mapp chose to do one with the Charleston Housing Trust, the forerunner to the S.C. Community Loan Fund.
The mission of the Charleston Housing Trust was to help increase affordable housing, but it quickly became apparent that housing issues were broader than the Charleston metropolitan area, so it became the Lowcountry Housing Trust. It then expanded to a statewide organization, and in 2014, changed its name to the South Carolina Community Loan Fund. The nonprofit has offices in Charleston, Columbia and Spartanburg.
In addition to expanding its geographical footprint, the organization has also expanded its service offerings. No longer just a fund for housing, the group helps with other economic development offerings. For instance, in North Charleston, Mapp describes the lower end of the city as a “food desert,” without a full-service grocery store for residents.
“We would go to the ribbon-cuttings and groundbreakings for the affordable housing projects, and we would hear, ‘It’s great we have housing, but there is no grocery store in the community or daycare or economic activity,’ “ says Mapp. “If a parent wanted to go buy a child pencil and paper for school, there weren’t many places in some of the communities to be able to do that.”
Still, affordable housing is the organization’s top priority, and Mapp says South Carolina’s dearth of it is a simple lesson in economics.
“Basic economic demand says if you have more demand than supply, it will drive cost up,” she says. “There’s just not a lot of housing stock that’s available. And what is available becomes premium, and the prices go up. It’s definitely the cause of the escalation in prices we’re seeing here in Charleston.”
Mapp says the group’s biggest challenge is access to affordable capital to lend. Larger projects often have a longer timeframe, and only being able to lend capital for five or 10 years makes it difficult to get some of these projects off the ground.
“If we had access to more capital and longer-term capital, our ability to really have an impact would be increased,” Mapp says. “Ultimately, at the end of the day, the goal is to increase the flow of capital into both the organization and also into South Carolina for these much-needed community development projects.”
Mapp says the group’s focus for this year is to drum up support from foundations, which she describes as an “untapped resource.”
“We’re spending a lot of time trying to figure out how we bring foundations to the table, how we help them recognize the ability to use their capital to help us access additional capital,” she says.
Despite leading an oft-misunderstood nonprofit, Mapp’s interest in leading this charge is deeply personal.
“I live in this community,” she says. “I live in this state. I love South Carolina. It’s where I’m raising my family. I want to see our state succeed. I worry and think about the future for my children, so I want the best possible environment for them to grow up in.”