The COVID-19 pandemic wrought economic turmoil across Washington’s smallest businesses and nonprofits, but for many businesses owned by historically-excluded communities, the pandemic exacerbated economic inequities that small businesses had been struggling with for years or decades. Small, community-based businesses are the backbone of our economy, but many clung to survival even before the pandemic on a month-to-month basis, unable to secure loans for future stability and growth.
Washington State Department of Commerce and the National Development Council sought to address that and provide access to flexible, working capital for those who had previously been denied access. By bringing together key players, they had the ability to create change. They assembled a network of Community Development Financial Institutions (CDFIs) who, as non-profit lenders, have been serving underbanked communities for decades, technical assistance providers who would help businesses with financial literacy, language assistance and understanding how to become bankable, as well as investors from the private sector who would add to Commerce’s $30 million seed contribution to the fund. In the end, they created a fund designed to support the smallest rural-based and BIPOC, LGBTQ+, Veteran and women-owned organizations in Washington during this — and future — economic crises in through low-interest, flexible loans.
Amid the confusion of the pandemic, small businesses were inundated with similar programs, offers and, frankly, a wall of confusing resources that all looked the same but were technically challenging to engage. PPP loans were complicated to apply for and negatively perceived by most small businesses, and with historically low distrust of government, Commerce’s fund needed to be positioned differently to diverse business owners across the state.
Commerce and National Development Council partnered with DH to name the fund, establish an accessible message platform/value proposition and a unique visual identity to stand out amid the marketplace confusion. This process included insight interviews with small business owners to understand their needs and barriers to engaging in a program like this. We also conducted a competitive landscape of the colors, design styles and messages of other similar programs, banks and CDFIs themselves to find a place where this fund could stand out. Key messages focused on framing the loans as from trusted community organizations and not big government,
the value of flexible loans tailored for Washington's smallest businesses and the program's ability to create stability and growth.
Promoting the Small Business Flex Fund — a name emphasizing its flexibility — to diverse small business owners required an equity-based campaign approach — meaning the program couldn’t rely only simply on targeted advertising or government owned media channels. It required investments in deep partnership with community-based organizations (CBOs) and the local CDFI’s who were already serving the communities we wanted this program to reach. Building awareness and credibility for the fund meant working with trusted message carriers in these communities to familiarize them with the program, make sure it felt like a good fit for their communities, fund them for their time and collaboration, and then equip them with the customized materials and tools needed to spread the word to their networks.
What we did
The program launched with a website in nine languages to maximize its accessibility, with easy-to-understand video and collateral content in a robust partner toolkit for CDFIs and CBOs to share in their communities. CBOs have continued to join the effort, spreading word as trusted sources within communities across the state.
A statewide media buy is underway, specifically reaching non-white business owners. Almost 11,500 direct mail pieces have been sent to small businesses in rural zip codes, and over 8,000 Spanish-language mailers were sent to zip codes with high LatinX populations.
To get underneath barriers uncovered in our research — such as fear of debt and distrust of big banks — testimonial videos from diverse small business owners were created so that business owners across Washington could truly see themselves in the fund’s advertising. In these videos, business owners speak to the ease and efficacy of the fund, helping to encourage applications in under-resourced and under-banked communities.
To date, over 997 businesses and nonprofits have been funded, totaling over $86.2 million in loans. Of those funded organizations, almost 78% have diverse ownership.
Washington’s Flex Fund has had the best conversation rate compared to similar programs in other states (like New York and California), at 1 loan funded for every 11.9 applicants – with other states closer to one loan per 18 applicants. This rate is a testament to our effective tactics, which has led to higher quality referrals, and ultimately, more capital in the hands of businesses that need them the most.
The fund continues to gain visibility; to date, it has been the subject of 550 news articles with a potential reach of over 560 million, including a notable feature in Forbes. Over 2 million paid media impressions have been generated through statewide marketing efforts specifically targeting diverse business owners with 50 or fewer full time employees.
Through a continued strategic approach, and by continuing to invest in and empower local community based organizations, the Small Business Flex Fund is poised to achieve its goal of getting $100 million in loans into the hands of our smallest businesses and nonprofits – and in turn strengthening communities through small business resiliency — something all Washingtonians rely upon for economic vitality.