Innovative non-profit helped shape and validate microfinance as a viable commercial activity, increase access to investment capital for working poor; with tens of billions of dollars in commercial capital now available in the microfinance industry, Unitus will refocus efforts to other scalable solutions to global poverty
Unitus today announced that it will suspend its micro-finance acceleration activities and shift its resources and activities to areas of maximum socio-economic impact for underserved people throughout the world that have yet to attain either scale or commercial viability. After fulfilling current partner commitments, the organization will release its staff of nearly 40 individuals in its Seattle headquarters and its Bangalore, India and Nairobi, Kenya field offices. Remaining assets will be directed into new early-stage, poverty-focused philanthropic activities.
“The fact that we have become largely unnecessary in the microfinance arena is fantastic news and is a tribute to our generous, enlightened donors and the phenomenal staff at Unitus, who worked tirelessly to validate and refine the microfinance model, and advance the operations of our partners”
“For the past decade, Unitus has been working to increase access to capital for the working poor, under the central premise that this vast, underserved segment of the world’s population was a good investment and could be well-served by commercial capital providers,” said Joseph Grenny, chair of the board for Unitus. “We are gratified that this core belief has been validated—capital markets have embraced microfinance to the extent that there are tens of billions of dollars in microfinance capital now available annually, with additional providers entering the marketplace at an aggressive clip. We now feel that there is greater need for our capital and energy in other areas—which we are currently exploring—aligned with our overarching mission of alleviating poverty through opportunity.”
Since its launch in 2001, non-profit Unitus has played a significant role in the development of viable business models for microfinance that have been instrumental in attracting a host of commercial lenders and investors to what was previously a significantly underserved marketplace. The organization employed rigorous due diligence to identify microfinance institutions (MFIs) that could serve as strategic partners in India, Southeast Asia, East Africa and Latin America. Unitus then helped accelerate the development and growth of these MFIs through the deployment of grants, guarantees, “catalytic” equity and debt capital, and strategic/operational consulting.
In turn, these partner MFIs have deployed capital for the benefit of the working poor. The Unitus MFI partners have collectively lent in excess of $2 billion in microfinance capital to more than 12 million clients. Unitus hoped that by demonstrating the commercial viability of microfinance, they could encourage capital markets to take an interest and provide greater capital funds than the nonprofit sector was capable of generating. Today a significant portion of microfinance loan portfolios globally are funded by commercial rather than donor dollars.
To achieve its demonstration goal, Unitus also started and spun off two groundbreaking microfinance-oriented organizations that helped further solidify the viability of microfinance as a commercial business model, both of which continue to grow and evolve: the Unitus Equity Fund (now managed by Elevar Equity), a private equity fund; and Unitus Capital, a boutique investment bank.
“The fact that we have become largely unnecessary in the microfinance arena is fantastic news and is a tribute to our generous, enlightened donors and the phenomenal staff at Unitus, who worked tirelessly to validate and refine the microfinance model, and advance the operations of our partners,” said Ed Bland, president and COO for Unitus. “Brigit Helms, our outgoing CEO, merits our gratitude for her outstanding leadership in surveying the global socio-economic landscape, evaluating future options for Unitus and working with the staff to assure that our partners are on solid footing. Outgoing members of the Unitus team can now leave with the assurance that they have contributed to a tremendous legacy of success here, prepared to make a continuing positive difference in the world.”
As Unitus transitions away from microfinance to other strategic areas, Geoff Woolley, a former Unitus board member, will serve as future CEO for the reinvented organization. Bland will remain in his role as acting president and COO. Helms will serve as a key advisor during the organization’s transition. The Unitus Board and executive team are currently considering various strategic opportunities, with the goal to maximize the socio-economic impact for those currently not being served in today’s marketplace.