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“It is really working! Florida Community Loan Fund is really touching low-income people.”
– Sister Mary Heyser, RSHM, 2003

FCLF started as an idea in the mind of a group of Floridians who saw the need for affordable housing and essential social services in low-income communities. From these humble beginnings we have grown into a leading Florida CDFI, reaching millions annually through flexible financing and staff expertise.
1996 OFN Conference Attendees, image courtesy of OFN

A Movement Across the Country

The 1950s and 1960s saw a housing and credit boom across America. While many were prospering, low-income and minority communities were generally excluded from this economic growth. A common practice known as “redlining” deemed these areas too risky for investment by banks, denying residents access to loans and financial services.

In the decades that followed, community development activists fought to fill this gap in opportunity, development, and wealth, resulting in the enactment of what became known as the fair lending laws in the late 1960s and 1970s. The Community Redevelopment Act of 1977 further encouraged federal banks and financial institutions to help meet the needs of low- and moderate-income communities.

In 1994, the Community Development Financial Institutions (CDFI) Fund was created within the U.S. Department of the Treasury with a mission to increase the number and capacity of CDFIs operating in distressed communities across the nation. The CDFI Fund represented a shift in how federal programs worked: rather than disbursing funds directly to a specific program or project, the Fund assesses and invests in skilled intermediaries − CDFIs − allowing each CDFI to use federal funding to build its community.
sr mary speaking e square

A Passion to Help the Poor

In the early 1990s, around the time of this nationwide movement to expand the CDFI network, a group of Floridians began to explore the possibility of starting a loan fund to fight poverty and encourage change through financing. The group was led by Sister Mary Heyser, RSHM, the founding board member of what is today Florida Community Loan Fund. At that time Sister Mary was the director of the Catholic Campaign for Human Development in the Diocese of Venice, Florida.

These individuals were involved in social justice issues and faced the daily challenge of meeting the needs of low-income families throughout Florida. Some expressed doubts that one organization could make a difference statewide. A few attended a training offered by the NACDLF (National Association of Community Development Loan Funds – predecessor of Opportunity Finance Network) and realized they had a long way to go to accomplish their goals. They came back to Florida feeling discouraged and posed the question: What do we want to do next?

The group determined they wanted to bring their dream to life. They realized that starting a community development financial institution (CDFI) – an industry that was just emerging at the time – would be an effective way to bring opportunity to low-income communities. With a grant from the Catholic Campaign for Human Development, a feasibility study was undertaken that helped the founders form a vision that would become Florida Community Loan Fund in 1994.
Grove House, an early FCLF loan

Reaching Every Person and Community

The next challenge faced by FCLF founders was how to reach the whole state. It seemed it would not be a good use of start-up capital to establish multiple offices and hire staff.

One person posed the question: What is statewide and can connect us to what’s happening on the ground? The answer was nonprofit organizations: they know their low-income communities and are familiar with housing and economic development challenges and solutions. With financing and technical assistance, a loan fund could build the capacity and financial strength of nonprofit organizations working in Florida’s low-income communities.

FCLF partnered with nonprofits around the state and began to work through them to help accomplish their missions. Today FCLF works from a network of statewide offices, but we still rely on our nonprofit partners – and mission-focused for-profit businesses – to get the job done in their communities, using FCLF’s flexible capital and staff expertise to maximize opportunities.
FCLF and Archdiocese of Miami in 2000

Investors From Every Sector

To build capital that would be available as loans to nonprofits, Sister Mary and the founders first turned to those they knew – Catholic Dioceses and religious congregations and communities. Making an investment in or a donation to a FCLF was a way for these groups to put their values and beliefs into practice. However, the “Loan Fund” was not to be a Catholic organization – but rather a truly statewide CDFI that welcomed financial support from all sectors.

Early investors included the Florida Catholic Dioceses, who contributed start-up funding in 1993. Additional investments and operating support came from the pension and retirement funds of communities of religious women. Sister Mary asked them, why let your money sit in a bank when you could loan to FCLF and bring about real social change? Early loans and grants ranged from $2,000 to $50,000.

The first religious community to contribute was a contemplative order of religious women, the Society of St. Teresa of Jesus, whose passion for helping the poor guided them to FCLF. They gave up $2,000 they had set aside to repair their roof and loaned that money for operating funds – a loan they later converted to a grant.

After securing capital from religious communities, Sister Mary and other founding board members turned to banks, foundations, and others for loans or grants. FCLF investors today include nearly all major financial institutions in Florida, religious communities and orders of faith, nonprofits, leading foundations, federal and state government – with investments as large as $10 million (from Truist in 2022).

Our First Loans

As soon as FCLF had $100,000 in capital, we began to make loans. Our first loans in 1996 were $50,000 to a nonprofit organization in Pensacola to build rental apartments, and $65,000 to a Miami organization to buy and renovate homes for sale to low-income families.

This is quite a contrast from FCLF’s current community development loan maximum of $6.5 million, with a recent fiscal year average loan size of $1.4 million.
sr mary speaking e square

A Life of Service

Sister Mary served on FCLF’s founding board of directors of until 1997 when she traveled to Zimbabwe with the Religious of the Sacred Heart of Mary. She remained in touch with FCLF staff through the years with inspiration and challenges. She visited us on our 20-year anniversary in 2015. You can hear from Sister Mary and other FCLF religious investors in this video on FCLF’s YouTube channel.

Sister Mary passed away on November 4, 2019. In FCLF’s 2019 Annual Report we paid tribute to our founding board member. Here is an excerpt:

This year we said our last farewell to Sister Mary Heyser, RSHM. Sister Mary was the founder of Florida Community Loan Fund in the early 1990s. Her tenacity and untiring consensus building resulted in the creation of the Sunshine State’s first community development financial institution, bringing capital to low-income communities throughout Florida. While she always referred to herself as one of the founders, it was clear to many others that Sister Mary was the founder.

“Join me on this little journey of mine, if you will,” Sister Mary would often say; her invitation so inspiring and heartfelt, declining it was simply impossible. Her journey was to serve. And she served by never ceasing to find ways to bring resources to, and keep resources in, the communities in which she worked. Sister Mary’s work didn’t begin or end with FCLF. The financial institution she founded was just one stop among many in her lifelong journey of service.

Pictured, top to bottom: FCLF Board of Directors circa 1999 • 1996 OFN Conference attendees, image courtesy of OFN • Sister Mary Heyser, RSHM 2003 • Grove House Jacksonville, an early FCLF borrower • Archdiocese of Miami, an early FCLF investor • Beth-El Farmworker Ministry, an early FCLF borrower • Sister Mary Heyser, 2019


"It is really working! The loan fund is really touching low-income people. As one of the founders of FCLF, I am extremely proud of its work and especially the projects of the borrowers. These organizations are meeting needs and making change." –– Sister Mary Heyser, RSHM, in 2003 after a statewide tour to visit FCLF projects
"Once a family has a house, they feel important. And now they can reach out with dignity to the rest of the community. They bring hope to others." –– Sister Mary Heyser, RSHM, in 2015 on the importance of FCLF
“Community organizations that receive our financing are at the core of FCLF’s mission. It is their vision for a brighter future and dedication to their communities that gives our work meaning. From their success we draw strength, motivation, and encouragement; and we get a deeper sense of vision and an ever-renewing hope for a brighter future.” –– Nelson Black, FCLF Chief Lending Officer and founding board member, in FCLF’s 1999 annual report
“I did not have a chance to spend too many days with Sister Mary before she left for Zimbabwe. Nonetheless, she inspired our work from afar, and gave direction to the organization. She will continue do to so in death and inspire our work every day with her gentle but powerful mandate to help others live with dignity and opportunity.” –– Sister Judith Rimbey, OP, FCLF Board Treasurer, in 2019 on the passing of Sister Mary Heyser, RSHM
“Some people you can give $100 and get $1000 worth of productivity –– that was Sister Mary. It didn’t matter how much money you gave her; what she did with it was just amazing.” –– John Bauer, Founding Board Member, FCLF, in 2015 on early fundraising efforts
“When we started, we thought once we got to $10 million we would be done raising capital. Now we know we’ve just planted the seed. There are millions of people in need across Florida. Every investment decision has a moral consequence.” –– Ignacio Esteban, FCLF CEO, in 2006 on increasing investments in FCLF
founding collage 1920w
Core Purpose FCLF exists to maximize opportunities for people and places outside of the economic mainstream.
Our Vision Opportunity and dignity exist for every person and community in Florida.
Our Mission Our expertise and capital make projects successful and help organizations improve lives and communities.

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