Pandemic Response: Supporting our small business community - A story about the power of relationships, collaboration, advocacy, and persistence

As the Commonwealth and the Country came to terms with the true impact of the COVID-19 Pandemic in mid-March 2020, I closed the MACDC offices, and sent our staff home with their laptop computers. MACDC’s staff knew that our focus had to remain on two things: 1) helping our members adjust to the reality of a pandemic; and 2) advocating for the communities we serve and represent. We immediately knew that housing stability would be a central focus of our efforts. We also knew that this crisis would have a devastating impact on small businesses, especially the more vulnerable ones with whom CDCs and CDFIs typically work (micro businesses, businesses owned by people of color, rural businesses, those in Gateway Cities, and other businesses that operate on thin margins and with inadequate equity). These businesses started the pandemic with less wealth, smaller margins, less access to capital and many operated in the very communities hardest hit by COVID-19.  We realized right away that this crisis could make our shameful racial wealth gap even larger.  As we move into the new year, I wanted to share some of my experiences and thoughts about how MACDC and its members worked with old and new partners across the public, private and nonprofit sectors to mobilize a response to the crisis in our small business community.

MACDC grows its long-standing Small Business Peer Group

Our efforts began on March 18, when we convened our Small Business Peer Group, comprised of CDCs, CDFIs, and other community groups who work with entrepreneurs every day.  This group has been meeting regularly (and sometimes irregularly) for more than 25 years, but never with this level of urgency. The relationships among practitioners that had been built over the previous years proved critical as we shared information and ideas, learned about resources and strategies, and provided each other with moral support. Amidst our confusion and fear, one thing was clear - no one wanted to face this challenge alone. We agreed to meet weekly while the crisis continued, with as many as 90 people joining some of our Zoom calls (compared to about 10-15 at the average meeting pre-COVID). Our network grew as we continued to invite more people to join us (municipal officials, regional planning agencies, small business development centers, and anyone else who shared our goals). By the time 2020 came to an end, we held 32 meetings with a total of 1,430 people in attendance, representing 180 individuals from 78 different organizations.

These meetings provided a regular forum for practitioners to not only learn from each other, but to hear from key policy makers and program administrators about the tools and resources available to small businesses. Larry Andrews and others from the Massachusetts Growth Capital Corporation were there every week. We routinely had guests like Economic Development Secretary Michael Kennealy, DHCD Undersecretary Jennifer Maddox, SBA Massachusetts Director Bob Nelson, and representatives from municipal governments, Small Business Strong, and other critical partners.

New partners start working together in new ways

The conversations on Wednesdays helped spark several organic collaborations as new ideas and new relationships opened new possibilities. Early on, a number of organizations were interested in surveying small businesses to identify their needs, so with the leadership of the Lawrence Partnership we developed a shared survey instrument that dozens of organizations distributed generating a much larger and more diverse survey response and important data about what was happening in the field.  Later, as we saw many businesses of color struggle to access PPP loans, the Foundation for Business Equity, LISC, and others reached out to key banking partners to develop what came to be known as the Equitable PPP Collaborative. LISC stepped up to administer this program that connected businesses of color to technical assistance providers and to banks ready to accept PPP applications from non-customers.  This extraordinary collaboration helped over 350 businesses access PPP loans. The Coalition also used its direct experience with the PPP program to fashion a detailed set of recommendations to the SBA and the Massachusetts Congressional delegation about how the program could be made more equitable and fair.  The recommendations were embraced by over 60 organizations on May 11.

In May, as the Commonwealth of Massachusetts prepared to reopen, two long-time community development professionals and friends of MACDC, Marty Jones and Adam Gibbons, volunteered to help collect, collate, and organize information and resources that would assist practitioners who were helping businesses figure out how to comply with the new rules and still make money (or at least lose less money). They built a special website for the network and provided regular updates and links to resources. MACDC’s Board of Directors was also invited to meet with the Governor’s Reopening Task Force and provide recommendations for how to reopen the economy safely and equitably.  Our strong partnership with the Baker Administration, which had started in February 2014 when candidate Charlie Baker met with our board, gave us the opportunity to influence policy at the highest level. Our Board would also meet with Governor Baker in June to discuss both housing and economic development issues associated with the pandemic.

A bigger vision begins to emerge

By the summer, as the pandemic and economic crisis wore on, and racial justice protests highlighted the deep racial inequities in our society, our work took on new urgency. Glynn Lloyd of the Foundation for Business Equity initiated a conversation among several groups, including MACDC, Amplify Latinx, the Black Economic Council and LISC about how we could build on the success of the Equitable PPP initiative to build an enduring coalition. We started meeting regularly and created a vision for the Coalition for an Equitable Economy and formed an initial steering committee with leaders from over 15 community-based groups. By design, people of color compose a majority of the steering committee, and the Coalition adopted a mission statement focused on closing racial inequities in the small business sector. The Coalition is now poised to advance our policy and program objectives over the long term.  Indeed, the Coalition has already moved beyond immediate relief efforts. This fall, when BECMA led an effort to push the Baker Administration on the Commonwealth’s supplier diversity efforts, I helped mobilize a letter signed by 27 groups in support of BECMA’s agenda. Some of us then joined BECMA in their meetings with the Governor and his advisors, showing strength and unity within our coalition.  A few weeks later, BECMA secured significant policy wins when the Governor announced new initiatives to improve supplier diversity. I would not have been in those meetings but for the relationships and trust built over the prior few months.

Also, during the summer, there was a growing desire to conduct another small business survey to understand how the crisis was evolving, in particular its impact on businesses owned by people of color.  This time several of the organizations around the table agreed to pitch in their own financial resources to hire MassINC to conduct a more formal and professional business survey.  The results provided important insights into what was going on with small businesses, in particular micro-entrepreneurs and businesses of color and gave new weight to our advocacy efforts.

The Coalition has also begun to work with the Boston Foundation to map out strategies to build a strong small business eco-system that can help reduce racial disparities across the state. We envision an eco-system where underserved businesses are aware of and able to access the support they need to succeed. We are also working with Mass Inc to conduct a research project that examines best practices in public policy that can help advance our vision for a more equitable small business system. A third working group is looking at how we can create the financing products that small businesses need to grow and sustain their businesses. All these projects will continue in 2021.

Our coalition mobilizes for small business relief and recovery dollars

Throughout these months, MACDC coordinated an ambitious and persistent advocacy campaign to get relief dollars to small businesses and funding to support the community-based groups that were helping these business owners.  On March 23, 2020, MACDC issued policy recommendations for responding to the COVID-19 crisis that included a call for an initial $150 million investment to support small businesses.  These recommendations were later embraced by a coalition of nearly 80 organizations. We presented these recommendations to Secretary Kennealy; to legislators (including at MACDC’s Annual Lobby Day on April 28) and these ideas eventually became central to Governor Charlie Baker’s small business relief plan in the Fall.  We repeatedly engaged the media and I probably talked to Boston Globe reporters on a weekly and sometimes daily basis to keep these concerns in the press.  Rosario Ubiera-Minaya, Segun Idowu and I jointly published an op-ed about these recommendations in Commonwealth Magazine.

For weeks and months, our coalition pressed the case for more state and local dollars for small business relief.  We first saw success at the local level as cities began using CDBG funding to support small business grants.  Peter Dunn from the City of Worcester made a presentation at one of our Wednesday meetings to share with others how Worcester had navigated the complicated CDBG rules to make grants available to businesses quickly.  In July, both the House and Senate passed economic development bills that provided $75 million and $80 million respectfully for small business relief.  Finally, in October 2020, I was able to join Governor Baker at a State House press conference (my one and only trip to the State House during the pandemic), as the Governor announced a new $50.8 million grant initiative aimed at priority businesses such as people of color, veterans, women, LGBTQ and Gateway Cities.  A few weeks later, the Legislature and the Governor agreed to provide $5.1 million in funding for the Small Business Technical Assistance program – up from $3 million last year. This allowed MGCC to support 65 community-based organizations across the state.  The Legislature and the Governor also approved $17.5 million for CDFIs and CDCs to invest in small businesses and an additional $17.5 million in grants. Finally, on the last night of the legislative session, the House and Senate approved $110 million in new capital authorizations for small business programs.  All these initiatives – the grants, the CDFI investments and the technical assistance – were part of the recommendations that we first put forward in March!

With these new resources secured, the power of the Network once again revealed itself as dozens of CDCs, CDFIs and community-based groups mobilized to help clients apply for grants and LISC stepped up again to coordinate information flow, communications, and technical assistance.  By the application closing date, over 10,000 businesses had applied for help, including 3,700 businesses owned by people of color.  Governor Baker announced initial awards of $50.8 million on December 21, with 95% of the grants going to businesses owned by people of color – a victory for racial equity that would not have happened without this network. A few days later, he announced another $68 million in grants with 50% going toward businesses of color and 50% to women-owned businesses. This was in sharp contrast to what we saw with the PPP program where white-owned and larger businesses fared better. On December 23, the Governor announced a commitment of $668 million in small business grants – far more than we had ever expected, but an amount that is clearly needed to meet the devastation caused by this pandemic.

A victory of that scale has many parents, so I will not argue that our Network deserves all the credit.  Clearly, many other business advocates and industry associations were also pushing for resources, as were municipal and elected officials. No doubt Governor Baker and his entire Administration were already aware of the pain created by the necessary public health measures and were determined to provide some relief.

That said, the Governor cannot distribute $668 million by himself. He needs organization, infrastructure, and a delivery system. He needs to be pushed by advocates like us. Moreover, we know these programs cannot be implemented equitably without community-based organizations.  Our network, working hand in glove with MGCC for the past ten months, created the opportunity and platform (and external pressure) to make this investment possible.

Today’s victories were built on years of hard work

I think it is important to remember that the seeds of this success were planted many years ago.  For me, it goes back at least until 2006 when MACDC was able to successfully lobby Governor Mitt Romney and the legislature to create the Small Business Technical Assistance program in the first place.  At our 2006 MACDC Convention, we secured a pledge from then candidate Deval Patrick to sustain the program, which he did. In 2010, we worked with the Patrick Administration (and Senate President Karen Spilka who was chair of the Economic Development Committee at that time) to create the Mass Growth Capital Corporation as a successor to the Community Development Finance Corporation.  In the negotiations over that legislation, we insisted that MGCC retain the mission and commitment to racial equity that embodied CDFC (which itself was created by Mel King in the 1970s) and secured a permanent seat for CDCs on the MGCC Board. Larry Andrews and I were founding board members of MGCC and together with our colleagues on the board and staff, and under the leadership of the Patrick Administration, we built an organization dedicated to equitable small business development. Governor Baker embraced this vision when he spoke at the 2014 MACDC Convention as a candidate and has followed through ever since. In 2019, Governor Baker and the Legislature increased funding for the program by 50% to $3 million – long before COVID-19 even existed!

More recently, the Baker Administration and MGCC had a few trial runs at providing disaster relief to small businesses, first during the snow emergencies that welcomed Governor Baker to office in January 2015, and then again in 2018 following the Columbia Gas explosions in and around Lawrence. In both instances, MGCC was there to support impacted businesses and the lessons learned in those crises – especially the close collaboration with Mill Cities Community Investments in Lawrence – proved vital when COVID-19 arrived.

I share this history to underscore that successful advocacy and successful community development is an on-going process that builds on past success and past failure, that relies on lessons learned and relationships forged, that builds infrastructure and muscle memory and is handed off from Administration to Administration and generation to generation. The pandemic accelerated this process, but it did not start it, and it will not end it.  I have no doubt that the lessons and relationship built over the past 10 months will continue to yield impact for years and even decades to come.

The Path Forward

Most immediately, of course, the network will continue to address the immense challenges that remain. As we start 2021, with hope that vaccines will soon end this wretched pandemic, we are mobilizing the network to tackle an ambitious agenda:

  • Help more businesses apply for and smartly deploy the $668 million in MGCC grants.
  • Help more businesses secure new PPP forgivable loans and get existing PPP loans forgiven.
  • Partner with DHCD and local governments to fully disburse existing CDBG resources for small businesses.
  • Collaborate with MGCC to implement new small business support programs approved by the Legislature, including a major new investment program for CDFIs & CDCs that lend to small businesses and a program to close the digital divide among small businesses.
  • Convene our network bi-weekly to continue sharing information, building relationships, and engaging policy makers.
  • Offer professional development opportunities to practitioners through the Mel King Institute for Community Building.
  • Provide support to the small business community to ensure that they have the information, capital, customers, and networks needed to successfully reopen and scale up their operations as health restrictions are hopefully eased later this year.
  • Systematically strengthen the small business eco-system by working with the Boston Foundation, MassINC and others to ensure that it can spark and sustain equitable business development that closes that racial wealth gap over the long term.
  • Transform this network into a powerful advocacy force under the banner of the Coalition for an Equitable Economy, so we can continue this work beyond the immediate crisis and build a dynamic and equitable economy for everyone.

Together, we can take some pride in what was accomplished in 2020, even as we wish we could have done more. Thankfully, the relationships, networks and results built in 2020 have created an opportunity to achieve more in 2021 and beyond. 

As we begin this work anew, I take inspiration from the courage and persistence of the thousands of small business owners who have endured so much and continue to fight, adapt, and persevere. They have sacrificed to help stop this deadly virus, and it is our turn to have their back.

For their benefit and ours, let’s get to work!