Jeremy Nowak

The Honorable Walter H. Annenberg
1993
John F. Street
1995

As president and chief executive officer of the Reinvestment Fund, Jeremy Nowak and his organization have contributed to the social and economic relief of some of the Philadelphia region’s neediest people. Operating from a busy office in the Chinatown section of Philadelphia, the reinvestment fund’s mission is aptly described as “’doing good’ with discipline.”


 
S tarted in 1985 and originally called the Delaware Valley Community Reinvestment Fund, the fund began with a $10,000 foundation grant. This money was used by a group of socially concerned investors, professionals, and community activists to hire Nowak to create and run an investment fund. This fund would provide small low-interest loans to community groups and small businesses in economically distressed communities in the Delaware Valley. A community organizer, Nowak had been working in the Logan neighborhood of North Philadelphia as a block organizer--one who organizes residents to come together to deal with crime, housing, and other issues on their block.

The fund had no money to start with. Nowak spent about a year to raise the first quarter of a million dollars. It reminded Novak of his work as a block organizer--he spoke to one person, than another, just like he had gone door to door. Gradually confidence was gained and the fund grew steadily. By the time that Nowak won the Philadelphia Award, the fund had about 650 individual, church, corporate and foundation investors, who had purchased promissory notes with a low to moderate rate of interest. Acting as an intermediary between borrowers and lenders, the Reinvestment Fund then allocated money to projects that would improve the quality of life in the Philadelphia region’s poorest communities. The fund requires performance and accountability from the borrowers. It’s a form of philanthropy in which socially conscious investors receive their money back and a little more. Nowak stated: “We spend a lot of time talking to church groups about balance sheets and to corporate boards about values.”

Typical projects that have benefited from the loans include housing rehabilitation, day care centers, and small businesses. In 1995 Nowak observed that the fund had never lost money on a borrower. There have been many success stories. A community group in North Camden that had rehabilitated a few houses received a $50,000 grant. The group had no collateral, so it was one of those investments “made on faith,” as Nowak described it. The group went on to rehabilitate over one hundred houses and is now “a thriving construction company.” The Gesu School, a Catholic school located in North Philadelphia, wanted to expand to accommodate 200 students from nearby Catholic schools that had been shuttered during the early 1990s. The church had been told that the regional church was not in a position to help. Stepping into the breach, the Reinvestment Fund aided the Gesu School with a $150,000 loan.

By 1996 the fund had loaned 40 million dollars and held assets of about 20 million. “Working in an inner-city neighborhood,” Nowak recalled in a 2010 interview, “I saw that the issue of capital was critical, and that was an issue that often was avoided, or often wasn’t thought about. So I saw that while civic organization and civic power were fundamental to social change, capital was also. This seemed like an opportunity to combine organizing talent with an interest in how to put capital in the hands of organized people.” After winning the award, Nowak commented, “There is a real longing out in the community to do the right thing. There is a broad center of opinion--one that is black and white, rich and poor--that wants to rebuild these neighborhoods, but with discipline.”

James J. Copeland

Sources: Rosland Briggs, “Fund Receives $2 Million for Community Financing,” Philadelphia Inquirer, August 1, 1996; Marc Kaufman, “Civic Award Goes to a Man in the Business of ‘Doing Good’ Jeremy Nowak Brokers Loans to Enrich the Quality of Life in Poor Areas,” Philadelphia Inquirer, May 9, 1995, “Faith, Hope and Capital: Jeremy Nowak,” Public Broadcasting System (PBS), http://www.pbs.org/capital/stories/jeremy-nowak-print.html; “Financials,” The Reinvestment Fund, http://www.trfund.com/AR2010/financials.html; “Jeremy Nowak, Ph.D.” The Reinvestment Fund, http://www.trfund.com/about/bios.html. Photo: Image courtesy of The Reinvestment Fund. Comment: Nowak holds a Ph.D. in cultural anthropology from the New School for Social Research in New York City. He has published numerous articles on economic development issues, including the part played by artists in neighborhood revitalization. Nowak is the vice chair of the Philadelphia Federal Research Bank, and chairs the boards of the Mastery Charter School Foundation and Alex’s Lemonade Stand, which raises money for pediatric cancer research.