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Our Story

Mission Statement

The Community Empowerment Fund cultivates opportunities, assets, and communities that support the alleviation of homelessness and poverty.

Founding Story and Documentary Kit

Click to Download the Kit. It includes a full timeline of our founding-story, an outline of our essential partnerships, and a guide to viewing and discussing the CEF Documentary, To Borrow Budget and Save.

Our Founding Story

In the summer of 2009, a group of students, shelter residents, faculty, and community members in Chapel Hill launched the Community Empowerment Fund to address the systemic financial barriers faced by the homeless and working poor in the United States. CEF was founded on the idea that small amounts of capital coupled with social support, savings opportunities, financial education, and positive community could facilitate transitions out of homelessness.

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CEF came out of the context of relationships between students, community members, and shelter residents in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Prior to our launch, students working with the UNC Campus Y committee HOPE offered community development and storytelling-based programs that brought students and shelter residents together in meaningful dialogue on a regular basis. Students began to build relationships with members of the homeless community through projects such as Talking Sidewalks, HOPE Gardens, and Community Dinners.

Through these relationships, HOPE volunteers learned that many individuals in transitional housing simply lacked small amounts of capital to get on the path toward self-sufficiency – as little as $60 for a pair of work boots or $200 for tools. While social service agencies existed that could meet a portion of these needs through small cash grants, such grants did not address the deeper causes of cyclical and systemic poverty and inequality. Sustained support, human capital, community networks, and true empowerment were still lacking. The combination of the need for financial assistance and an assertively supportive community led to the creation of the Community Empowerment Fund – a model of microfinance that develops relationships alongside assets.

From there, HOPE began a partnership with the Carolina Microfinance Initiative (CMI), a fellow Campus Y committee with extensive experience in international microfinance. CMI members traveled abroad to intern with notable MFIs and brought the lessons from these experiences back to the UNC campus. In November of 2008, the UNC Law School Center on Poverty, Work & Opportunity joined the partnership to bring an institutional backing and academic foundation to the group’s work.

With the help of these three partners, CEF launched our pilot in the summer of 2009. Eight student volunteer loan officers and five pilot borrowers, all from diverse backgrounds, worked together to apply, adapt, and refine the CEF approach to domestic microfinance.

We got our start as just a micro-loan program, but based on the lessons that we all learned during the pilot, CEF grew to offer much more. We now provide savings accounts, educational trainings, and person-centered support. Read more about how we have grown since our pilot…

Report on Our 2009 Pilot Launch

CEF launched in the summer of 2009 with two pilot groups of borrowers and funding from the Office of Undergraduate Research, Carolina Center for Public Service, and APPLES. The results of this pilot have been published and are available for public learning and feedback here CEF Pilot Report, June 2010 .

Ongoing Evaluation

Research and constant evaluation are integral to the success of the CEF model—both as a student-run organization and as a financial institution that works with especially vulnerable, financially marginalized populations. See the CEF library for white papers and research articles written by our students!

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