Businesses that provide employment opportunities for autistic people and ex-convicts are among the first beneficiaries of a novel philanthropic endeavor that allows individuals to make an impact on Chicago by investing as little as $20.

Benefit Chicago, launched a year ago with $65 million in backing from Chicago philanthropic powerhouses, announced Tuesday that it has made its first $12 million in loans to six small businesses and nonprofits that otherwise would have had difficulty getting the money they need.

Among the recipients of Benefit Chicago impact investments are Sweet Beginnings, which gives jobs to people who previously were incarcerated, and Autonomy Works, which depends on autistic people to do analytics for marketing clients. Other recipients include Chicago Neighborhood Initiatives; Garfield Produce Co.; the Southwest Corridor Collaborative of Local Initiatives Support Corp. Chicago, a nonprofit that helps poor neighborhoods; and IFF, a nonprofit lender and real estate consultant.

Begun in 2016 by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the Chicago Community Trust and the Calvert Foundation, Benefit Chicago is designed to harness what’s known as impact investing. The community-focused organization takes in investment money from everyday Chicagoans who want to do good. Individuals can buy bonds online with as little as $20 through the Calvert Foundation, creating a pool of money that is used to make loans to businesses and nonprofit groups that would not qualify for bank loans.

The MacArthur Foundation set an initial goal of raising $100 million for Benefit Chicago. To date, $77 million has been raised, including $12 million from 169 individual investors, according to MacArthur President Julia Stasch.

Raising the funds has been slower than anticipated. But “when you invite people to put small amounts of money into this you can’t be disappointed,” said Stasch, who noted that the effort is on track to reach $100 million.

MacArthur, one of the nation’s largest foundations, typically provides grants. But Stash said that both grants and loans are needed, with loans providing the funding that small enterprises often need to get other lenders to provide additional funding.

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