Semble brings together communities and investors through innovation
February 25, 2014
By Peter Clark
For nonprofits always on the lookout for funding, Semble bridges the gap between those communities and investors.
Chosen as one of the three Innovation in Issaquah award winners by the Issaquah Chamber of Commerce, Semble has grown a lot since beginning in 2008.
“This was birthed out of necessity,” President Chris Walcott said. “When there are communities around the nonprofits, there’s a community that would support that nonprofit. Our role is to help communities be intentional with their investments.”
The Eastgate-based company helps nonprofit organizations find investors from their communities and assists investors to identify socially aware, lucrative investments. Walcott said the idea was formed in 2006, when a local private school had an urgent need to purchase its property. Todd Tarbert, now Semble’s CEO, reached out to investors in the community and helped raise those needed funds. That facilitation led to the realization of Semble.
And though it started alongside the recession of 2008, Tarbert said the economic climate actually provided Semble with opportunities.
“We actually took what might look like a negative and helped promote our initiative,” he said. “The general marketplace in the recession had to look for alternatives. In many ways, it brought to light this approach.”
Walcott said he understood comparisons to crowd-funding sites like Kickstarter.com, but said Semble operates as more of a mediator to enhance communities.
“We’re actively dealing with investment capitol, so there are similarities,” he said. “We look at this as the purest form of socially conscious investing. Because of this, we can lower monthly loan payments by 40 to 60 percent.”
Semble aims to find investors to fund loans that will provide a return on investment and allow nonprofits to get out of debt. A Semble infographic shows the average nonprofit loan interest rate is 5.25 percent, whereas the average community loan provided by Semble investors has an interest rate of 3.25 percent.
“We give the nonprofit the power to set the interest rate,” Walcott said. “We also let each investor opt whether they want to take an even lower interest rate. We want our nonprofits to get out of debt.”
Walcott acknowledged that nonprofits have to spend money to make money. Semble’s loans provide savings, which nonprofits can put to use.
“Has this approach been done before? Yeah, it’s been done for decades,” Walcott said. “But it seems like we’re one of the first with this utilization of technology and how we’re structuring it.”
Beginning last year, Semble rolled out an online platform, which would highlight a nonprofit investment opportunity and provide information to investors.
“We want full transparency and are trying to give investors full information around a nonprofit’s need,” Walcott said. “Up until that point, we were very localized. It becomes a lot more overwhelming without having everything put together online. That’s why technology is such a huge part of this.”
Semble begins its process with nonprofits. Understanding them identifies their communities, which helps with locating investors.
“The early focus is to gather all the information they would need to provide for an investor,” Walcott said.
Then, Semble gives as much information as possible to potential investors.
“Our focus is always sharing the why. ‘Why do this?’” Walcott said. “They know by doing this, you’re sharing the impact. It will actually be impacting lives through this investment.”
Balanced between the nonprofits and investors, Walcott said Semble primarily helps share information and facilitate exchanges.
“I would call our role educational,” he said. “We are a service provider so a community can be intentional in their investments.”
With the launch of an online platform, Semble has grown beyond its Eastside roots and even beyond the state. Walcott said the company, which employees nine people, is working with nonprofits and investors in six other states.
In the next five years, he said the company hopes to offer increasing opportunities to get nonprofits out of debt across the country.
“There’s over a half-trillion in nonprofit debt that’s secured debt — mortgage debt,” Walcott said. “If we could, as a community, refinance the debt, it would free up $6 billion just in the savings. Our goal is to impact every community in the country.”