167-year fund in Philly still helps business owners
When the merchant fund started helping retired small business owners who had had no luck in the mid-19th century in Philadelphia, social security, health insurance and pensions safety nets had yet to been invented.
There were also no family-friendly yoga studios, mobile pet lounges, or video production facilities doing business in Philadelphia at the time. But like the economy and the city, the mission of the Fund has evolved since 1854. It now aims primarily to provide grants to small businesses like those mentioned above. Many are owned by people of color, immigrants, or women and can be found in the neighborhoods and commercial corridors of Philadelphia.
Case in point: The Merchants Fund awarded a grant for interior renovations to store owner Shani Newton, including Dolly’s Boutique & Consignment is an anchor point for the Germantown Avenue shopping district in Mount Airy.
“I was able to hire another minority company to do the job,” Newton said. “It changed the look of my store and changed the face of my business. It has helped me make an impact on my community.
Over the Fund’s 167 years, the often precarious financial situation of many sole proprietorships, moms and dads and other small businesses has been a constant. These businesses can be extremely vulnerable to ordinary setbacks – or an unprecedented disaster, such as the COVID-19 pandemic.. And owners are often unfamiliar with the public and private services that could be useful, or crucial, to their survival.
“Running a small business can be difficult and exhausting, even in a strong economy,” said Jill C. Fink, Executive Director of the Fund and one of its two employees. “When you put the pandemic on top of it all, it’s no exaggeration to say it’s an existential threat,” she said. “Small businesses, especially very small businesses, often don’t want a zero-interest loan because the reality is they don’t want to go into debt anymore. They need a subsidy.
“Now with the pandemic there is more uncertainty,” she added. “None of us have been through this before and everyone is trying to figure it out.”
Like almost all charities, his organization had to pivot quickly.
The Fund provided 67 COVID-19 relief grants totaling $ 307,000 to small businesses in Philly last year as many struggled to qualify or access the federal emergency Paycheque Protection Program. “Historically, we had never raised funds, but this year I put a [payment link] on our website which brought in $ 35,000, ”said Fink. “It was seven other COVID-19 relief grants. “
After shops were looted along 52nd Street in West Philly and several other shopping areas in the city during some of the protests following the police murder of George Floyd on May 25, the Fund and several of its donors have teamed up with Philadelphia. Commerce Department for the Restore and reopen program, which quickly made a total of $ 1.6 million available to 186 businesses – mostly immigrant and black-owned retail businesses – that had been damaged.
“The main objective was for the owners to be able to carry out repairs [or do other work] that insurance would not cover, ”said Libby Peters, Commerce Department’s deputy director of operations strategy.
“The Merchants Fund is a highly respected part of the ecosystem in these trade corridors,” she said. “They took advantage of the connections they have there [so] we could reach businesses that may be harder to reach.
A similar desire to connect with those who need it most was behind the Fund’s decision in 2007 to refocus its grants on existing businesses, the president said. Bruce hotaling. He joined the board in 1996 when it was mostly made up of older white men.
While Hotaling and Fink are not aware of any policies that historically excluded black or female business owners, both noted the possibility that, in practice, few beneficiaries were anything other than business owners. white males.
“The organization was born out of another Philadelphia,” Hotaling said. “Now we have a board of directors that looks like Philadelphia, with blacks and browns, women and immigrants. It really makes a difference. “
Bankers, civic leaders, and clergy who created and endowed the Fund in 1854 initially envisioned it as a means of creating a residential facility for impoverished elderly or disabled small business owners. But the founders instead decided to pay a monthly allowance to beneficiaries in their own homes. And a grant was meant to be not just an act of charity, but an expression of community gratitude for the hard work of the recipients.
In 1890, 65 people received assistance totaling $ 18,000 (over $ 500,000 in today’s dollars). From 2007 to 2020, the Fund disbursed 787 grants totaling $ 7.49 million.
This figure does not include $ 1.9 million in allowances paid to retired traders since 2007; after deciding to support active businesses rather than retirees, the Fund stopped receiving new requests. Only eight of the beneficiaries in 2007 are still alive, including an 85-year-old former real estate professional whose end-of-career bankruptcy left him in dire straits.
“I’ve been with the Merchants Fund for about 15 years and it’s been a life-saving relationship,” said the man, who asked that his name and other details not be released in order to protect his life. private.
“I was pretty depressed about the bankruptcy, and when they told me I was accepted, I said, ‘Oh wow, thank you very much.’ They gave me the feeling that there was a future, ”he said. “The money allowed me to have my hair cut every month, take my clothes to the cleaner, and eat out maybe once a month. They gave me some hope.
Also grateful are current traders who have received help, such as Young Cho, owner of Flaming Basil, whose food truck specializes in Laotian and Thai cuisine. “There aren’t many people who [are] ready to help the little guy, “he said in an email,” so when this blessing came to us from the Merchants Fund, we were so grateful and grateful. “
Cho and his wife and business partner, Kathy Xayamoungkhoun, have five children and were “at their wit’s end with bills” when the Fund stepped in. “What we are learning from this experience is that we are really not alone in this fight,” he said.
Small immigrant-owned businesses are a big part of the new vitality of neighborhood trade corridors in Philadelphia and other cities, said Peter Gonzales, a member of the Fund’s board of directors. It is also CEO of the Visitor Center, which meets the needs of immigrant communities.
“The way to get information and resources not only for immigrant traders, but for all small traders is through relationships,” he said. “It’s about building relationships at the intersection of philanthropy, private business and the community, so that information and resources are available to you. Whatever language you speak.
Fink said the Fund continues to adapt, not only to the pandemic, but also to the changing needs of businesses.
“Owning property is crucial for the longevity of businesses and is fundamental to creating wealth that can be passed on,” she said.
The Fund helped Shani Newton buy the building that houses her Dolly store on Germantown Avenue and is working with two black business partners in Kensington to help them buy the property they are renting.
“This is one of the new ways we look at our work as an organization,” said Fink. “How do we give grants that can fundamentally change the life course of a small business owner? “
She added: “The systems of oppression were built with intention. We must be equally intentional in dismantling them.
This story was originally published in the Philadelphia Investigator. It appears here as part of the SoJo Exchange of the Journalism Solutions Network, a non-profit organization dedicated to rigorous reporting on responses to social issues.