Cincinnati's Collective Empowerment Group leverages strength of black churches to get business clout

'We call it the AARP of church'

CINCINNATI – Nineteen black churches in Cincinnati have been working steadily to boost the financial clout of their nearly 14,000 parishioners.

The churches are part of the Collective Empowerment Group , and the organization has 40 business partners that offer special deals or discounts to their parishioners.

“We call it the AARP of church,” said Pastor Eugene Ellington, president of the group’s board and pastor of Consolation Baptist Church in College Hill. The partner companies involved get vetted before joining and are reviewed each year, he said.

But it’s not just the people who benefit.

In just nine months, Collective Empowerment Group parishioners generated roughly $350,000 in business for the group’s strategic partners, he said.

Angelita Moreno Jones, the owner of Eastern Personnel Services and chair of the group’s Strategic Partner Committee, said her company definitely has gotten more business through the Collective Empowerment Group.

“I have met new clients who have given me a lot of business. Plus, it’s given me the opportunity to recruit from within the churches to fill some of our positions,” she said.

Banking On Churches’ Clout

The group is now working to forge partnerships with two financial institutions – one locally based bank and one that is national in scope. The ultimate goal, Ellington said, is to create more favorable lending practices for black churches and their members.

Nobody wants the banks to make bad loans as a result of the group’s efforts, said Ellington, who also is CEO of Ellington Management Services, Inc., a diversity-consulting firm. But black churches should be able to use their collective muscle to get more favorable consideration for themselves and their members, he said.

“Churches on Monday deposit millions of dollars, just in this city,” he said. “We don’t expect the banks to do anything that’s inappropriate. But we expect them to relax some of their criteria.”

The Collective Empowerment Group’s Metro Cincinnati Chapter started in February 2011. It’s an affiliate of the National Collective Empowerment Group, Inc ., in Prince Georges County, Md., which formed as the Collective Banking Group in 1993 and changed its name in 2010.

The national group’s banking relationships have helped its member parishioners get hundreds of millions of dollars in loans to buy homes, start businesses and open franchises, said James Clingman, a local author, activist and educator who helped bring the organization to Cincinnati in 2011. He started advocating for a Cincinnati area chapter of the organization after the April 2001 riots here.

Clingman said he’s been impressed with the number of business partnerships that the Cincinnati organization has formed. But he’s disappointed that more churches haven’t joined the group yet.

It only costs on average $1 per member for a church to be part of the group, he said, and parishioners get far more value out of it than that.

“Too often we complain about things that we don’t have and things we need, but we’re not willing to do the work necessary to get the things we complain we don’t have,” Clingman said. “The answers are right there in just cooperating with one another and increasing your numbers so you can talk to businesses about what you would like for bringing them thousands and thousands of customers. That’s business 101.”

What Would Jesus Think?

Ellington said there are those who question whether churches are an appropriate setting for this work.

But Clingman said the model makes perfect sense.

“That’s in reality the only place that black people pool their money once a week – in churches,” he said. “So why not leverage that money in the marketplace?”

It’s also a novel way for pastors to meet their parishioners’ needs, Ellington said.

“Jesus talked about money more than he did anything else in the Bible,” he said. “He understood the world we live in.”

When the whole thing works correctly, it’s good for both the parishioners and the businesses that are Collective Empowerment Group partners, said Pastor Robert Harper of First Baptist Church of Kennedy Heights.

“If you have a good marriage between local small minority businesses and churches, you can begin to change the lives and destinies of people because some of those businesses are going to need workers,” said Harper, who is vice president of the Collective Empowerment Group board. “You keep the money in the community a lot longer.”

The group hopes to get at least 50 black churches as members eventually, Ellington said, which would increase its clout even more.

“The issue is not an issue of race. It’s a matter of economics,” he said. “We believe we can help rebuild our community by addressing the economic condition of our community.”

Harper is convinced the organization will succeed in growing its clout by growing the number of churches involved.

It’s taking time, he said, because pastors are conservative and want to see sustained success before they join.

“I also think part of our dilemma is reaching out and making new relationships,”

he said.

Ultimately, Ellington said, the savings for parishioners and the benefits to businesses will make the group’s case for broader participation.

“This is not about a public relations campaign. It’s not a social service trying to fix social ills,” he said. “It’s a business proposition. And we believe there is value.”

For more stories by Lucy May, go to www.wcpo.com/may . Follow her on Twitter @LucyMayCincy.

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