The timing seems right. In the midst of the deepest American recession since the Great Depression, peer-to-peer microlending pioneer Kiva.org 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 OpportunityFund.org 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, is 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.