Published: March 2, 2023
Businesses in the West Midlands that struggle to access finance from high street lenders are set to benefit from a £4m funding package thanks to a unique partnership between three socially-minded organisations.
Block Inc, a global technology company with a focus on financial services, is making its first social impact investment in the UK, providing £2m capital to ART Business Loans (ART), which is being matched by well-established ethical lender Unity Trust Bank.
ART, a Birmingham-based Community Development Finance Institution (CDFI), was founded in 1997 to help alleviate poverty through enterprise. The institution lends between £10,000 and £150,000 to businesses in underserved and disadvantaged communities which are unable to obtain their full requirements from traditional Banks.
Dr Steve Walker is Chief Executive at ART. He said: “This deal is a real game-changer for us. It’s a great vote of confidence from such well-established institutions as Block and Unity Trust Bank.
“With the backing and support of these two allies, ART has never been in a stronger position to write the next chapter of our 25-year history.
“This £4 million agreement puts ART on a firm financial footing at a time of considerable economic uncertainty. It enables us to continue to provide key financial support to SMEs across the West Midlands, many of whom are currently facing considerable financial headwinds.”
Block is made up of ecosystems, including Square, Cash App, Spiral, TIDAL, and TBD. They have a united purpose of expanding economic access for everyone. Today’s investment comes from its $100m social impact investment fund. It was established in 2020 to support minority and underserved communities. The fund is allocating $10 million for social impact investments in markets outside the US.
Amrita Ahuja, Chief Financial Officer at Block, said: “We are thrilled to be making our first UK social impact investment. ART’s efforts to help underserved groups access fair and responsible finance is completely aligned with Block’s mission of economic empowerment.
“We believe fair access to finance is what unlocks opportunities for individuals and communities and are pleased to be able to invest in local programs that further this mission.”
Unity Trust Bank, a thriving commercial bank that is headquartered in Birmingham city centre, has been using banking to improve the lives of UK communities for nearly 40 years. It is a long-standing supporter of CDFIs and has provided ART with £20.4m funding since 2005.
Deborah Hazell, CEO at Unity Trust Bank, said: “Financial inclusion is a key focus for us and we are committed to providing access to fair and affordable finance through intermediaries such as ART.
“Historically, we have supported CDFIs by match funding grant money. Grants typically have come from local authorities, central government or the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF).
“This new co-lending partnership is a significant development. We welcome the addition of a corporate investor supporting this underserved sector.”
Theodora Hadjimichael, chief executive of Responsible Finance, said: “Block’s investment breaks new ground for the entire CDFI sector.
“ART and other CDFIs are business talent-spotters, nurturing entrepreneurs who can’t otherwise get the capital they need to grow.
“It is routine for large corporations in the US to invest in CDFIs. They boost business growth, help create jobs and address regional and demographic under-representation in accessing finance.
“But an investment like Block’s has been unprecedented until now in the UK. This is despite our sector’s unique and well-evidenced track record over more than a quarter of a century.
“Nine out of 10 of the viable businesses which borrow from a CDFI have been turned down for the finance they need elsewhere. Yet, most thrive and succeed with CDFI support.
“This breakthrough investment complements Unity Trust Bank’s valued and long-term commercial relationships with many CDFIs. It will unlock business innovation in the West Midlands.
“Other impact investors: we’re open for business!”
This article first featured in the Financial Times.