"We're no longer the new thing," jokes JD Bergeron, senior director of social performance at Kiva, a crowdfunding platform for microlending. "I wonder how Kiva would do, if it were starting out today. There’s a lot more noise that you have to compete with."
When Kiva was founded in 2005, the start-up didn't have a formal marketing team. Bergeron explains how, despite that, it gained traction: "We didn't have the budget for [marketing]. But it caught the imagination of former president Bill Clinton, [talk-show host] Oprah Winfrey, and [New York Times columnist] Nicholas Kristof. We just had some great people come forward and want to support us. We got lucky."
Lucky or not, Kiva has been able to provide loans worth more than $277 million to individual entrepreneurs around the world in the past six years. The San Francisco-based non-profit popularized crowdfunding and redefined how we think about charity—including the idea that "lending" can be as beneficial as "giving"—in the 21st Century. Today, the organization has nearly 680,000 lenders who've offered loans to individuals in more than 60 countries.
How has Kiva transformed from a small Bay Area start-up to one of most recognized names in social enterprise? According to Bergeron, a veteran at the organization who was responsible for building Kiva's Fellows Program, which places fellows in the field with microfinance partners, giving them training on the principles of microlending, especially in developing countries, Kiva today is branching out, gravitating toward offering loans for education, energy, water, and more. In other words, if a loan can be repaid and will likely have social impact, it'll be considered.
"We're doing the exact same lending philosophy, but taking it further," he explains.
This means that the non-profit is partnering with not just microfinance organizations, but also with other social enterprises. For instance, One Acre Fund, a social enterprise focused on reviving agriculture in Africa by educating farmers on smarter agricultural practices, has teamed up with Kiva. Loans raised by One Acre Fund farmers will go towards purchasing seeds, fertilizer, and other farm equipment for 2012. Other collaborations include a University in Kenya, where students can take on a loan for their education, and clean energy providers who sell low-cost solar devices to the rural poor. Kiva recognizes, however, that these loans may take longer than two years to return.
"It's certainly a departure, but we've got a patient lending community. They're willing to take the risk," Bergeron says.
Kiva lately is not only looking at impacting individual lives but also those of communities. With its Kiva Cities initiative, the focus, Bergeron explains, has been to build partnerships in cities hard-hit by the economy, such as Detroit and New Orleans, and start helping local businesses get access to the capital they need to reemerge. Done in alliance with Visa last year, Kiva Cities recognized that there was as much a need at home for micolending, due in part to the recession, as there was in the developing world. But deciding to operate in the United States came at price for Kiva.
"Some folks believed that this was Kiva losing its soul. Ultimately, though, what we had believed and hoped for, turned out to be true," Bergeron says. "People were drawn to lending in their backyard as well as giving to people in distant locations like Tajikistan or Azerbaijan."
In 2010, when Kiva debuted its first round of loans to American entrepreneurs, there were also concerns about how much more money would be needed for American small businesses in order to have any impact. Whereas entrepreneurs in developing countries were accessing loans up to $3,000, those in America were able to ask for up to $10,000.
"It's a choice for [donors]. They can give to whichever loan they feel a connection to. We have to remember, though, that economies are different," Bergeron says.
In fact, this question of social impact has become Bergeron's daily work at Kiva. To monitor impact, Kiva now has implemented a new incentive-based system, or "social audit," that holds partners accountable for social impact. There's a gamification aspect to it: Partners are awarded badges that illustrate their area of impact, be it poverty alleviation, innovation, entrepreneurial support, or family empowerment.
"We wanted to show lenders in an easy way the kind of impact they were having and the kind of partners we work with. When they hear about a negative story coming out of India, we want them to know that we're working with solid partners. These badges help us do that because we have such a broad network of fellows in the field who can keep us updated."
Yet some criticism still hounds the organization, Bergeron says. Last year, the missteps of a few Indian microfinance institutions, notably SKS Microfinance, tainted the field temporarily, raising questions about the nature of loans, specifically the high interest rates associated with microfinance.
A common question Bergeron fields is: Why is it that in the United States, a college student can get a credit card for a 20 percent interest rate, which is considered a "terrible rate," when a microfinance loan in Mexico, for instance, might come with a 75 or 80 percent interest rate?
"It’s hard to see that as anything but profiteering," he acknowledges. "But it ignores the question of what is the profit margin, which is really slim. Delivering microfinance is really expensive."
All this scrutiny has led to some good, he says, forcing the industry to become more transparent and accountable. Looking ahead, Bergeron says, Kiva is quite keen on testing new ideas, going beyond traditional microfinance, and drawing lessons from others in the field who have also adopted the crowdfunding model.
"Lend4Peace is a great organization that's used crowdfunding to really put the spotlight on the Israeli-Palestinian model. That’s quite innovative," he says.
In fact, Kiva has no shortage of ideas, with entrepreneurs approaching members of the Kiva team regularly, seeking their guidance and support, he says.
"We get so many people who come to us, asking for our support. There seems to be this need for a Kiva incubator where we can test them all, find the scalable ones, and give the support needed. Maybe that’s a way to do that," he says, as if thinking out loud.