WilmingtonBiz Magazine

Meaghan Dennison On Data And Dollars For Social Impact

By Johanna Cano, posted Apr 10, 2023
(Photo by Aris Harding)
Data and capital. Those are key areas Cape Fear Collective identified from conversations with nonprofits as two niches it could fill, driving towards the collective’s mission of enacting social change. 
At the wheel is Meaghan Dennison, the organization’s CEO.
Dennison has served as CEO since May of 2022; she was the fourth person hired by the young organization when she first joined in 2019 as director of programs. She took over the head role after Patrick Brien, Cape Fear Collective’s founder and former CEO, moved on to another position.
At the root of Dennison’s education and career is an interest in advocacy and lobbying. 
She graduated from Appalachian State University with a bachelor’s degree in political science,  and, after a few stints in politics, she joined the North Carolina Chamber where she had various roles including as government affairs manager. Before joining Cape Fear Collective (CFC), Dennison worked at the Wilmington Chamber of Commerce as its director of leadership development.
“My six years spent with the North Carolina Chamber following graduation ultimately landed me in a government affairs role, and I really enjoyed the connection to policy and advocacy and implementing change in that way,” Dennison said. “I knew I wanted to get back into the nonprofit space. I think the relationship-orientedness of nonprofits and the advocacy role we’re able to play, not direct lobbying, but in connecting the data to impact measurement has been real exciting for me.”
Since 2019, Dennison has seen the organization come into its own. When CFC got started it held many meetings with the community to understand what the organization could provide to serve as a useful partner. 
“We hosted about 1,500 … community partners in an effort to not reinvent the wheel or step on anyone’s toes, but to understand where and how we can add value in driving impact in the social sector,” she said. “With that, we heard the need for data and capital. And so fast forward into 2023, I feel like we’re fully seated in that mission with our social impact investing platform and our team of data scientists who are working to drive both tools and data science expertise to the social impact sectors.”
On the data side, CFC has provided $1.8 million in pro-bono data science support. CFC launched the Community Data Platform, a cloud-based database with “analysis ready” community health data that nonprofits and other organizations can use to scour and download data for free. CFC also launched the Healthy Communities NC Dashboard, which took goals from the Healthy North Carolina 2030 project from the state’s Division of Public Health and coupled it with community data and analysis to help organizations build hypotheses, goals and measurements.
Perhaps the most integral endeavor for CFC has been its goal to tackle affordable housing in the region by directly investing in the purchase of properties.
This includes the creation of Collective Ventures, an arm of the organization that provides social impact investments. The venture formed in January 2021 with the goal of attracting $10 million in investment. As of March of last year, the organization exceeded its goal with $16.1 million under investment.
In partnership with Live Oak Bank, First Bank, First National Bank, First Citizens Bank and Dogwood State Bank, the venture has deployed funding into affordable housing. First, the organization purchased Driftwood, a 15-unit apartment complex in Wilmington, for $1.2 million. Driftwood initially was developed more than a decade ago as a tax credit project to provide housing for homeless residents. The goal for CFC’s purchase was to renovate and keep the units affordable at 30% to 40% of the area median income, or AMI. CFC worked with Good Shepherd Center to have support systems in place.
“We were able to purchase naturally occurring affordable housing in large-scale rental portfolios, preserve the housing, renovate the properties and then our goal, which we’re still working towards, is to offload to nonprofit partners or individuals at 80% of AMI or below or first-time homebuyers,” Dennison said.
In 2022, CFC purchased 71 residential units in Wilmington for $10.6 million with the goal of maintaining affordable rates. At the time, Dennison said the venture allows the organization to be a competitive buyer in the market and preserve units as affordable housing. 
One important aspect of CFC is its collaboration with local partners, from banks that can provide investments to nonprofits that can help disseminate resources through their own, already-established outreach.
“When we purchased Driftwood to preserve as permanent supportive housing, we could not do that work without Good Shepherd Center to provide the case management and ongoing support for residents both on-site and in helping lease up that property,” Dennison said. “We try our best to play the role and stay in our lane as capital and inventory and then get out of the way for organizations on the front lines to continue to do the work that they’re doing.”
A project currently in the works for Dennison and the CFC team includes adding a transportation vertical called Mission Driven Motors in partnership with the Cairo Center and Kingdom Cars with the financing of those vehicles by On The Road Lending, a Texas-based auto financing company that helps people with low credit scores or no credit.
Dennison also focuses on workforce development and is exploring career impact bonds and pay-it-forward funds to invest in a person’s short-term but high-impact training and education that can lead to high-wage careers.
“I’m really excited,” Dennison said, “to come to work every day and see this organization grow and have a ‘Yes, and’ or ‘No, but’ attitude when we’re presented with various challenges or problems to solve.”
Meaghan Dennison was part of last year’s WilmingtonBiz 100 as an Influencer. This year’s group will be announced in late September and highlighted in the December issue of WilmingtonBiz Magazine.
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