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Kiva Expands Lending to U.S.

By Tom Watson on June 11, 20093 Comments

The timing seems right. In the midst of the deepest American recession since the Great Depression, peer-to-peer microlending pioneer has opened the doors to its long-planned domestic lending program – connecting its network of lenders to small businesses like Enrique, a New York cobbler seeking a $5,000 loan for leather, rubber soles and general working capital.

Kiva’s success in enabling small loans to business owners in developing nations – more than $76 million from half a million lenders, $25 at a time – has linked the 30-year-old microcredit movement to western philanthropy, spurring a host of imitators and huge community of fans who drive the success and spread of the four-year-old nonprofit.

While the average loan syndicated online by Kiva (which works with in-country field partners to administer the actual loan programs) is about $415, the organization will make much larger loans in the U.S. The initial roll-out of the program has 45 entrepreneurs, seeking loans ranging from $1,025 to $10,000, enabled by field partners or Accion USA.

In a post by Isabelle Barres, the Kiva blog discussed the organization’s natural progression into the developed world:

…to be a truly global organization, Kiva is expanding into microfinance markets in the developed world. Since over 70% of our lenders are currently from North America, the United States was a natural first choice. We know there is much more to be done to fully achieve our mission of connecting people throughout the world, but we are very excited about this first step. We look forward to the day when money is flowing in all directions around the world through Kiva: a Guatemalan woman making a loan to an entrepreneur in Detroit, a man in Uganda making a loan to an entrepreneur in Rwanda, and an Italian lending to a Filipino farmer.

Two months ago on a panel that I moderated at the Skoll World Forum in Oxford, Kiva president Premal Shah noted that Kiva’s impact was still small, considering the world’s vast needs – and he indicated the organization’s large-scale ambitions for changing how people help other people. But the new model he talked about at Skoll was less geographic and more aimed at the community of users: Build.Kiva opens Kiva’s stream of information about its loan opportunities to developers who might use it to build other Kiva-related software tools, like an iPhone application or a Wordpress plugin, so that loans can be made “where the people are.”

To me, the community of users that Kiva has empowered and inspired is the real story of the organization’s success, $76 million in loans notwithstanding. Its expansion to U.S. microcredit has the potential for expanding that excitement to helping local people who need a lift up.

In CauseWired: Plugging In, Getting Involved, Changing the World (Wiley, 2008), which chronicled the rise of online social activism, Kiva founder Matt Flannery talked about the need for risk in the social sector – for blending the desire to do good things with taking the chance on new models for getting things done.

One thing I’m excited about is the democratizing of philanthropy. On the source of funds side, a lot of money is clustered in a few people. There is a big disparity between philanthropists with power and the rest of us, but if you can unlock every twenty-five dollars under the mattress, you can change things. I’d love to see more people take risks. A hundred thousand people with twenty-five dollars each will take risks, but the Gates Foundation with billions won’t take risks. That’s because they have this built-in responsibility to spend the money wisely. We need more venture capital. There is a sense of shame when you make a bad donation, and that’s harmful. We need to remove the shame and have some tolerance for failure.”

It’s clear that the U.S. expansion is an experiment – its relatively small scale and ambition underscore its pilot program nature. What’s interesting is that Kiva, arguably the top brand/success story in the online peer-to-peer social entrepreneurship sector, willing to put its reputation at risk and try to connect small-time lenders with small-time businesses at the edge of U.S. poverty.

In other words, I think it’s a very good thing that Kiva is so obviously restless, despite its success.

And I agree with what Leigh Graham said on the Poverty in America blog:

…there have always been small and micro- enterprises in this country that lack access to traditional credit.  Recession or not, it’s exciting that Kiva is bringing its business model home.  Beyond the individual economic benefit of small business lending, a less tangible sense of reciprocity goes a long way towards poverty alleviation.

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  • Premal Shah says:

    I really enjoyed the article Tom – thanks for noticing the risk taking – not all people are fans of Kiva’s expansion to the US (see thread on TechCrunch for an example). Nevertheless, how can we learn what the internet community wants unless we test – so it’ll be interesting to track the funding rates and comments as a result of the US launch. Thanks as always for providing intelligent insight on a consistent basis to the social enterprise space.

  • [...] microfinance services to the U.S. in a pilot program with or Accion USA, I thought it was a good idea, but a passionate group of Kiva fans disagreed – a [...]

  • Sam says:

    Thank you for this wonderful review of Kiva’s new domestic microlending program. I work at ACCION USA, one of the two Kiva field partners operating in the States, and it’s exciting to hear so much discussion about US microloans. Kiva has been receiving a lot of flak lately for their decision to begin facilitating loans to local entrepreneurs. We feel that a majority of this criticism stems from a misunderstanding of domestic microfinance—its mission and its mechanisms. AUSA believes passionately in the value of small business and accessible credit, having offered domestic microloans now for over a decade. With the ability to enrich communities, empower individuals, and increase economic opportunities, small businesses constitute a vital sector of our economy.

    By permitting loans to US microentrepreneurs, Kiva has allowed AUSA to provide access to credit to many individuals who would have otherwise been without financial resources. As Kiva wisely acknowledges, poverty is relative, and income deprivation is only one component. In the heat of the financial crisis, credit has all but evaporated for small business owners.

    We find it inspiring that Kiva would take such a risk in entering into the domestic lending market. Our partnership with Kiva has been exciting. Not only has it attracted new applicants and buoyed interest, but it has spawned a meaningful debate about the purpose and applications of microfinance. Even though Kiva has unfortunately lost some devotees as a consequence of its domestic loans, it has gained much more. As their recent report shows, foreign lending has continued to rise even as domestic loans attracted an outpouring of funds. By taking the plunge into the domestic lending market, Kiva displayed clarity of vision and keen judgment about the nature of their mission, the character of their lenders, and the needs of their borrowers. If you ask us at AUSA (and as Kiva has stated), it was a risk well worth it.

    To learn more about ACCION USA’s operations, check out our online resources documenting the impact of our loans. Also please feel free to follow our blog and twitter account (@ACCION_USA)!

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