Businesses that provide employment opportunities for autistic people and ex-convicts are among the first beneficiaries of a novel philanthropic endeavor that allows individuals to make an impact on Chicago by investing as little as $20.

Benefit Chicago, launched a year ago with $65 million in backing from Chicago philanthropic powerhouses, announced Tuesday that it has made its first $12 million in loans to six small businesses and nonprofits that otherwise would have had difficulty getting the money they need.

Among the recipients of Benefit Chicago impact investments are Sweet Beginnings, which gives jobs to people who previously were incarcerated, and Autonomy Works, which depends on autistic people to do analytics for marketing clients. Other recipients include Chicago Neighborhood Initiatives; Garfield Produce Co.; the Southwest Corridor Collaborative of Local Initiatives Support Corp. Chicago , a nonprofit that helps poor neighborhoods; and IFF, a nonprofit lender and real estate consultant.

Begun in 2016 by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the Chicago Community Trust and the Calvert Foundation, Benefit Chicago is designed to harness what's known as impact investing. The community-focused organization takes in investment money from everyday Chicagoans who want to do good. Individuals can buy bonds online with as little as $20 through the Calvert Foundation, creating a pool of money that is used to make loans to businesses and nonprofit groups that would not qualify for bank loans.

The MacArthur Foundation set an initial goal of raising $100 million for Benefit Chicago. To date, $77 million has been raised, including $12 million from 169 individual investors, according to MacArthur President Julia Stasch.

Raising the funds has been slower than anticipated. But "when you invite people to put small amounts of money into this you can't be disappointed," said Stasch, who noted that the effort is on track to reach $100 million.

MacArthur, one of the nation's largest foundations, typically provides grants. But Stasch said that both grants and loans are needed, with loans providing the funding that small enterprises often need to get other lenders to provide additional funding.

Dezmond Swanson, prepares a Mother’s Day gift basket at Sweet Beginnings on May 10, 2017, in Chicago’s North Lawndale neighborhood. The gift baskets contain a teapot, tea bags and a jar of honey supplied by members of the Sweet Beginnings staff. The business employs 20 to 40 former inmates at a time, helping them build work experience.

As Benefit Chicago evaluates requests for loans it seeks three years of financial documents, "We aren't doing startups," said Executive Director William Towns.

He calls the loans "patient capital" because they can extend for 10 years with or without regular payments so that a business or nonprofit can fulfill a social cause without financial pressure.

The investment in Sweet Beginnings, for example, is helping that business have an impact, Towns said. Sweet Beginnings is already viable, selling honey-related products such as lotions and lip balm from bees raised in Chicago's North Lawndale neighborhood. But the $500,000 loan it is receiving from Benefit Chicago will allow it to extend the length of time it employs former inmates.

Sweet Beginnings was the brainchild of Brenda Palms-Barber, who as the executive director of the North Lawndale Employment Network was charged with finding jobs for former prisoners. Unable to get employers to hire them, she began the bee-related business. Now, 20 to 40 former inmates at a time work as beekeepers and produce products that are sold online and in about 40 stores. They are transitional jobs, aimed at giving individuals their first work experience after leaving prison so they build up the background that gives future employers confidence in hiring them, said Palms-Barber.

Brian Evans, left, and Ned Williams, adults with autism, work May 11, 2017, on analytics at Autonomy Works in Downers Grove. The business collects data on how online ads perform for clients and employs 25 workers with autism.

 (Antonio Perez/Chicago Tribune)

About 500 former inmates have worked in the business, and the Benefit Chicago loan will allow Sweet Beginnings to employ the workers for six months rather than just three, said Palms-Barber. With the pride of having a job, only 4 percent have committed crimes again, she said. That's in contrast to a 55 percent recidivism rate among the general population released from prison.

"We believe people can turn their lives around," she said.

Another business receiving a Benefit Chicago loan is Autonomy Works, which also provides jobs to people who otherwise might have trouble finding work. Autonomy Works, of Downers Grove, was started by Dave Friedman in 2012 after he looked for jobs that might work for his own son, who has autism. Friedman found few options. Then the former Sears marketing manager considered a business opportunity that has developed as online advertising has accelerated: Each day, data are collected on ads and reported to clients.

"It's repetitive and detail oriented," Friedman said. "The typical person would get bored, but all our employees have autism and like process, detail and repetition."

With a $600,000 loan from Benefit Chicago, he's planning to add technology and hire and train additional people to expand the business. He currently employs 30 people; 25 with autism.

Other Benefit Chicago loans will help develop distressed areas. Among them is a $3.5 million loan to LISC Chicago that will be used to revitalize the 63rd Street corridor from Cottage Grove Avenue to Pulaski Road and Halsted Street from 63rd through 79th streets.

IFF, with a $5 million loan, will finance child care, family services and a children's theater in the Humboldt Park neighborhood as well as a sports and education facility in Bronzville. Chicago Neighborhood Initiatives, with a $2 million loan, will invest in 111th Street retail and in the Englewood and Bronzeville neighborhoods.

Individuals who wish to buy bonds that will fund Benefit Chicago projects can purchase them online at

Towns said Benefit Chicago has received 85 loan applications and will continue to evaluate them and provide loans over time.

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