Monday, January 3, 2011

College Student-Run Microfinance Organizations

I did some reading about college student-organized and run microfinance organizations over the weekend, and am SO IMPRESSED!!

I began my research with a perusal of the 2009 Microfinance USA conference materials and blog posts. The session "Student-Led Microfinance" took place on May 25. In a blog post recapping the event Delaine Zody quoted panelist Alex Dang of Global Brigades, who said “The Kiva experience is not enough for college students. This group wants to go further.”

Alex also wrote a blog post, introducing himself: On a personal note, I started my career in microfinance as a student at UCLA with Global Brigades, a non-profit organization that empowers university students that volunteer in community development abroad. I was among 11 students who volunteered to advise a coffee cooperative in Honduras. I returned from Honduras committed to finding a way to offer that type of technical assistance to small businesses in California.

Another "Student-Led Microfinance" panelist, Rohan Mathew blogged about his work with the Intersect Fund, a Rutgers University microenterprise organization that he helped co-found from a dorm room in fall 2008.

Here's Rohan introducing the Intersect Fund:


The Microfinance USA materials referenced the report Can Student-run Microfinance Organizations Help Address Issues of Scale and Sustainability in the U.S. Domestic Microenterprise Industry? written by Elaine Edgcomb and Luz Gomez, published by FIELD of the Aspen Institute. I pulled the following points from the report:

The authors found that many college students who are engaged with microfinance organizations were inspired by Muhammad Yunus' book Banker to the Poor, and see their work with the schools' microfinance organizations as extensions of their interests in social entrepreneurship.

The services provided by the student-run microfinance organizations vary by the school, but generally speaking the students seem to be providing business coaching (and funding) to adult entrepreneurs from the local community. While the students try to make up for this by dressing professionally, the entrepreneurs are appreciative of the age gap because the students are very knowledgeable about low-cost marketing techniques that make use of technology.

However, the school calendar year with large gaps when students are not available to entrepreneurs, plus the relatively high student turnover rates as students graduate or drop out of the organizations, poses problems. Yale's program, for example attributes some of their problems with their delinquent portfolio to a lack of contact with borrowers during the summer vacation. The program's board members say that they play an important role in institutional memory and maintaining relationships with community partners and funders. They have addressed this by creating a handbook for the student leaders. However, the report authors feel that the students could also add training and mentoring for new leaders, too. The Brown program leaders have considered taking advantage of a full-time
AmeriCorps/Vista volunteer to transition the program longer term. However, Rutgers has a sufficient number of students on campus during the summer so they can keep their program going.

Nathan Huttner, a former student Director of Elmseed (Yale), and current board member, suggested creating a “hub" with full-time, experienced staff who could assist student “branches”. Since this report was published in June 2009, Nathan's idea has been realized. In his Microfinance USA blog post Rohan Mathew said that in October 2009 the Intersect Fund hosted like-minded students from eight schools to share best practices and collaborate. The Campus Microfinance Alliance grew out of that event - it was co-founded by Rutgers, Yale, and Brown students. The Alliance provides seed grants and technical assistance to emerging student-run microlenders. I LOVE IT!

I also love that Lehigh's Microfinance Club was one of the student-run microfinance organizations evaluated by the authors who wrote the FIELD report:) Did you catch the world's first hip hop microfinance video created by Fred Graves, '11, accounting major, former Grameen Foundation intern, and current President of the Lehigh Microfinance Club? :)

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