Frequent flyers pay it forward one micro-loan at a time.
At first glance, it seems unlikely that a group of frequent flyers would become one of the top three lending teams of the nonprofit organization Kiva. After all, frequent flyers, who some might say spend their time greedily accumulating large miles and points balances to travel first class, don't seem predisposed to thinking of the less fortunate. But in their travels, many flyers can't help but notice the disparity between the luxurious accommodations in their hotels and the way that most of the locals live.
Consequently, more than 1,000 people who are members of the Milepoint.com online community of travelers have banded into a team to lend a hand to those less fortunate. They have found a way to loan out their cash, earn miles by using a miles/points earning credit card to make the loan and then receive their money back. It's a loop of cash, miles and goodwill that keeps on giving.
What is Kiva?
Kiva is an organization that enables anyone with as little as $25 expendable cash to provide the debt capital that microfinance organizations need to fund small loans to poor and underserved populations. Most loans are $1,000 or less and given to people with limited or no credit history who wouldn't normally have access to bank loans. The average loan per individual borrower is less than $400. When a Kiva member makes a donation to a borrower, the money goes to the microfinance institution (MFI) that issues the loan. Kiva calls these MFIs "field partners". Once the money is paid back by the borrower, the money is returned to the lender and over time, the lender receives 100 percent of their money back. Most loan repayment terms are relatively short--many borrowers are required to repay the loan in 12 months or less.
As the payments are received, the lender will be notified via email and the money will become available in the lender's Kiva Credit account. You can then use your Kiva Credit to fund another loan, make a donation to Kiva or withdraw it via a PayPal account. Many frequent flyer lenders choose to withdraw their cash after loan repayment and use their co-branded credit card to fund other loans and earn more miles. "Adding new money via credit cards that earn miles or points is a nice bonus to our team's primary goal of helping people," says Team Member canucklehead. "Kiva has a unique relationship with PayPal as they do not charge Kiva interest on credit card transactions. This helps keep Kiva's operational costs low and their charitable organization operates very efficiently, as is evidenced by their four-star Charity Navigator Rating."
Kiva lenders can lend money to a single borrower or lend to a group of people seeking a loan. There are thousands of groups or individuals seeking loans and donors can narrow down the choice by location, sector (such as agriculture, clothing, food, retail, housing) and other categories. Loan requests include a photograph and description of the person requesting the loan, what the money will be used for and a repayment schedule. Milepoint member miles and smiles says, "With Kiva, I now stop and feel my heart connection (human to human) with each person I lend to. The heart connection compliments the money in the loan."
Whenever you lend out money, there's always a chance that you won't get paid back, but the risk with Kiva is negligible. Kiva borrowers and microfinance institutions are screened by Kiva and the repayment rate for loans as reported is 98.97 percent. And if you lend small amounts to multiple lenders, you can limit the risk. Lend $200 to one person who defaults on the loan and you lose all of your money but if you lend $25 to eight people, you'll only lose $25 if one person defaults.
Another way that lenders can lose some of their cash is through currency exchange. Whenever you loan to a developing country with a shrinking currency, you take the chance of losing money if that currency devalues substantially during the life of your loan. Some field partners cover the currency exchange loss, so if that's important to you, it's up to you to look for loans that have this covered. Kiva is very careful to define the various risks you take with each loan--look for the loan alert text box labeled Field Partner. You can see such items as field partner risk rating, delinquency rate, default rate and more.
If instead of loaning the money again you decide to donate the money to Kiva, that donation will be tax deductible. The loans themselves are not tax deductible.
And as canucklehead points out, "1) While you do not earn interest on your $25, there are many great benefits one should consider--a) you have been able to help someone; b) using a credit card, you will earn points for your $25 loan."
Currently, the Milepoint Kiva team is in the number three position of the Kiva Lending Teams with the most money loaned. In first place is the Atheists, Agnostics, Skeptics, Freethinkers team, then the Kiva Christians team and at third, Milepoint. Both of the other top lending teams have been around since 2008--three years earlier than the Milepoint team and both have many more members. Another frequent flyer online community, FlyerTalk, has had a Kiva team since 2008. As of this writing, they have over 300 members and have loaned out over $250,000.
Over $250,000 is commendable, but for whatever reason, the members of Milepoint have really taken to the concept of Kiva and are on their way to their current goal of loaning five million dollars. Members of the Milepoint Kiva team have found that Kiva is a great way to help others while earning thousands, sometimes millions, of miles for themselves. You can earn 1,000 miles for purchasing a $1,000 big-screen TV or you can lend out $1,000 to a farmer in a third-world country who wants to use the money to purchase supplies and grow vegetables to sell and feed his family--and you'll even get your money back.
The average Kiva user contributes $250 to around eight loans. Milepoint member, jbcarioca, has made more than 15,000 loans since he joined Kiva in July 2010. "I have lost $10.58 so far, entirely as a result of foreign exchange settlements, which amounts to no loss at all, as far as I am concerned." He has been making micro-loans for a very long time, "but until Kiva, my scale was very small and the process was very labor-intensive--Kiva made it possible to add scale to my lending." When asked what he does with his miles, he says he generally treats family members to trips, but "I still accumulate more than I ever use." So it's obviously not just about the miles.
Since Feb. 12, 2011, when the Milepoint Kiva Lending Team was founded, the team has grown to over 1,100 members who have made over 58,00 loans with a combined total of over three million dollars. The average Milepoint member lender has made over 50 loans (compared to eight for all Kiva members). The team passed the two million mark on March 9, 2012 and less than three months later, they passed the three million mark. By the time this magazine goes to press, those numbers will have grown substantially.
To say that's impressive is an understatement--and three million dollars equals three million miles/points that frequent flyers have earned. But the team isn't going to stop at three million, or even four million.
Milepoint Kiva Team Community
Currently, the Milepoint Kiva Team is working toward five million dollars loaned and are asking members to pledge at www.milepoint.com/link/?6750. Member tondoleo predicts that the team will reach the five million goal by February 2013. Team member canucklehead joined the team in May 2011. Since then, he has made over 700 loans in excess of $18,000 to borrowers in over 60 countries. He says, "I see our team reaching #2 and surpassing the Christians team next year. In five years, hopefully we will be the most successful lending team in Kiva's history and our relationship with Kiva will continue to build."
When you join the Milepoint Kiva Team you can opt in to receive emails from the group and follow them online on Milepoint's Community forums. What you'll notice immediately is that this group has turned into a true community with people going the extra mile (pun intended) for the less fortunate. Pledges are made, some monetary, some creative, such as howling at the moon or legally changing your name to Ryan Bingham (the character played by George Clooney in the movie, "Up In The Air").
Members often post particular loans that they would like to see funded or alert others about certain loans that are set to expire. "The Milepoint team has a lot of information about Kiva and team members are always willing to offer help to new lenders," commented canucklehead. "We have many links, threads and tools (including a wiki) for first time lenders that will make the process easier for selection." He says the team, along with providing information, offers fun and a sense of community to support the lenders.
Kiva loans have 30 days in which to find funding. Currently, the loans needed are outpacing lenders so in May, for the first time, 15 percent of the loans requested were not fully funded. When a loan is not funded, the money you set aside for that loan will go into your Kiva Credit to be used on another loan. It's a bit heartbreaking to see these loans not being funded, but this does not mean that the person who needs the loan will not receive the loan, the loans are already given by the field partners. Kiva says that when a loan is not funded, it's up to the Field Partner to "consider the characteristics of the loan that resulted in a lack of support from Kiva lenders."
Milepoint Mutual Fund
Another aspect of the Milepoint Kiva Lending Team is a Milepoint Mutual Fund. Here, lending team members can make tax-deductible donations into the mutual fund and then those funds are used to sponsor an annual Kiva Fellow and to fund a constant loop of Kiva loans. The first Milepoint Kiva Fellow is Devon Fisher who spent time in Mombasa, Kenya. Devon recently graduated from the University of San Francisco with a Masters in International Studies and has spent the last few years researching and working in the micro-finance sector. The Kiva Fellow is an unpaid, volunteer position and according to Kiva, is Kiva's ears and eyes on the ground, working directly with their microfinance field partners in over 60 countries around the globe.
Currently, the mutual fund is loaning and re-loaning more than $10,500 and was started with a generous donation by Milepoint member horseguy and Mrs. horseguy. You won't get your money back when you donate to the mutual fund. Funds donated through the mutual fund go into a non-withdrawable KLT Mutual Fund account using Kiva's auto-lending feature that includes loans about to expire, with a 4+ star rating of the microfinance field partner and the shortest repayment terms.
You can learn more about the Milepoint Kiva Mutual Fund at milepoint.com/kiva-mutual-fund and see who is benefiting from the mutual fund loans.
Kiva and Credit Cards
Here's a numbers scenario. Let's say that you apply for a credit card that is offering 50,000 miles as a signup bonus with a stipulation that you must spend $1,000 in the first three months to get the bonus. Using Kiva, you can fund $1,000 worth of loans. That gets you 51,000 miles within the first year without having to step on a plane, rent a car, buy a toaster or participate in any of the other ways a person can earn miles--and most importantly of all, you won't have to spend a dime if the annual card fee is waived the first year.
So even a small effort on your part can build into substantial miles over time. And if you search for loans with short repayment terms, such as a quick five months, your money can circulate quickly. This approach might be especially useful for frequent flyer programs you don't use as often. The credit card you use will keep the account active and you can keep the Kiva loans on a rotation until you get enough miles for the award you want. Perhaps visit one of the countries in which your loans have been put to work? When asked if he's visited the countries in which he has made loans, canucklehead said, "I have been to a few of the countries in Southeast Asia, Latin America and South America but I have a long way to go before I will see all the countries I have lent to--I look forward to it, though!"
Kiva Loaning Apps
There are several tools available for Kiva lenders. You can learn more about the apps available through Kiva at www.kiva.org/apps. And then, there are other tools available such as Kivalens, a free web application for Kiva lenders developed by a Kiva lender who, after he created the tool, now works at Kiva. Kivalens uses data from Kiva.org and offers the ability to search for loans based on safety (high partner rating and/or currency exchange protection) and the repayment date. And as the creator of Kivalens points out, you can also use the tool to find the riskiest loans if that is what you wish to do.
You can also sort your search by religious or non-religious affiliations for the microfinance partners and other criteria. And then you can sort by newest, expiring soon and the type of loan, like farming, jewelry and others. To access the site, you must have Microsoft Silverlight 3 plug-in. The site is good for people who want to loan a lot in a small amount of time. We found the site buggy using Chrome as our web browser. The site is still under development, and remember it is a labor of love, not backed by Kiva funds.
The team held its first "do" in March 2012, visiting Kiva headquarters in San Francisco. The two-day event included getting to meet three of the six founding members of Kiva. "We had 55 attendees at a time when the Milepoint Kiva Lending Team was only 500 or so members," said canucklehead. "Can you imagine an event where 10 percent of all the people attend a meeting? Unbelievable. In the end, we were blessed with a great event, great weather and built great friendships."
During the KivaDO, the group held their second "money bomb" that lent $400,000 to borrowers on Kiva during 47 hours (one global day from Samoa to Hawaii). The first money bomb lent $125,000, the most of any Kiva team in one day.
There is some talk on Milepoint regarding arranging a KivaDO2 for 2013 but nothing has been confirmed. You can follow the conversation at http://www.insideflyer.com/link/?6881
The possibility of free miles may tempt frequent flyers, but the good you are doing will ultimately be what keeps you coming back to make more loans. During a recent conversation with Kiva President, Premal Shah, he related this story from his childhood. He was raised in Minnesota but visited India as a five-year-old with his parents who were originally from India. As he was walking through the market in his father's former hometown, he dropped a one paisa coin he was holding. His mother asked him not to pick the coin up because the streets were muddy and filthy, and the amount of money was so small, it wasn't worth picking it up from the muck. As they continued down the street, Premal looked back to see a woman older than his mother pick up the coin and look to heaven in thanks for finding it. That's when young Premal figured out, "... a little bit of money for my mom could answer the prayers of someone else." That's what Kiva is--a little bit of money, multiplied by thousands of lenders, going to thousands of others to offer a hand up for their families and communities.
If after reading this article, you feel inspired to make a Kiva loan, visit the Milepoint Kiva Team page at http://milepoint.com/forums/wiki/milepoint-kiva "From my experience, once you get used to the website, finding loans (or getting suggestions from Milepoint or other message boards) is easy and the chances of losing money are very low," says canucklehead.
As Milepoint member jbcarioca stated, "People who fly constantly are privileged people and almost always are far from poor." So he likes to point out to them that Kiva is one of the few places where one can do good with your money and still keep it. "That is a great thing, isn't it? Frequent flyers, of all people, should understand how great a deal that is."
Q&A with Kiva
We recently caught up with Jason Riggs, Director of Communications and Media Alliances at Kiva to ask a few questions. His answers are below.
What are some future plans for Kiva?
To date, Kiva has reached more than 800,000 entrepreneurs, facilitating more than $325 million in loans, however we believe that this is just the beginning in terms of the lasting impact we can have on the world. In the future, we hope to reach two million entrepreneurs around the world. We will continue to innovate our loan product offerings to reach new communities including student loans, green loans and water loans.
Kiva was born from the belief that individuals are capable of lifting themselves out of poverty if given access to financial services--all they need is the opportunity, and Kiva loans provide just that. This belief embodies the ideals that Kiva is founded on:
- People are by nature generous, and will help others if given the opportunity to do so in a transparent, accountable way.
- Those working to lift themselves out of poverty are highly motivated and can be very successful when given an opportunity.
- By connecting people we can create relationships beyond financial transactions, and build a global community expressing support and encouragement of one another.
Why did you decide on $25 as the minimum loan amount?
We believe that $25 creates an incredibly low barrier to entry for everyday people to crowdfund loans to the working poor. The average size of a loan on Kiva is a little under $400. This means with the minimum loan of $25 by 16 Kiva lenders, a self-employed entrepreneur will receive vital capital to maintain their business. A small loan to purchase business-related items such as sewing machines or livestock can dramatically improve the life of an entrepreneur and his/her family, thus empowering them to earn their way out of poverty.
What are some of the biggest challenges you face?
Financing growth as a nonprofit can be a big obstacle for Kiva. Unlike other start-ups, as a nonprofit, we do not have investors to provide large amounts of funding. We depend on smaller grants and even smaller individual donations, we call them "tips", to grow incrementally. That being said, we have very diversified funding streams that help to pay the costs of facilitating loans, this is something that every healthy nonprofit needs.
Another obstacle for us is keeping up with trends and the latest technology in such a fast-paced technology environment. As an Internet-based company, we want to be sure we are using the latest and best technology possible, and it's often hard to keep up with.
We run into obstacles every day, ranging from big to small. We have found that we're able to overcome these by listening to our hearts and trusting our observations in the moment. The best decisions have arisen out of love, selflessness and a total embrace of uncertainty.
How are you using social media to connect with new lenders?
Kiva has a robust social networking presence. With over 460,000 Twitter followers and 160,000 Facebook fans, Kiva has a large, vocal and influential community online. While we rely on these channels to get the word out about new initiatives, partnerships and other causes that we support, we also use social media to introduce and recruit new lenders to Kiva. We do this in three ways:
1) creating engaging visual content that people want to share on their Twitter and Facebook profiles;
2) tapping relationships with influential Kiva supporters who help us spread the word to their large networks; and
3) expanding into new, compelling social media spaces like Pinterest, Instagram and Tumblr that reach different audiences.
Social media is one of Kiva's most important promotional tools, and we're constantly experimenting to reach and bring in more lenders.
Can you tell us the process for finding those who could use the loans?
Kiva partners with microfinance institutions around the world (we call them field partners). The organizations we partner with have expertise in microfinance and a mission to alleviate poverty. They administer loans funded by Kiva, know their local area and clients, and do the leg work required to get Kiva loans to the entrepreneurs posted on Kiva.org.
How long does it typically take from finding the person who needs the loan, to money being loaned to them?
Field partners disburse loans as soon as they are needed. They can do this up to 30 days before the loan request is posted on Kiva's website or 30 days after. The Field Partner collects entrepreneur stories, pictures and loan details and uploads them to Kiva. Volunteer editors and translators review the loan requests and publish them to Kiva.org.
Are there more countries in the works for Kiva loans? Which countries?
Currently, Kiva works with 145 field partners in 60 countries around the world. We're always looking for new partners to help us with our mission of poverty alleviation. We typically announce new partners on our blog, http://www.kiva.org/updates
- Stay tuned!
Is there a program in place where lenders can meet someone who received their loan?
While there is no established program for lenders to meet the borrowers they support, these opportunities do exist, and Kiva is constantly working to enhance the borrower-lender connection. For example, Kiva recently hosted its first ever open house for lenders and borrowers based in the San Francisco Bay Area. Taking place at Kiva headquarters, the event not only gave borrowers and lenders the chance to mingle, it also gave borrowers an opportunity to bring in their goods and products for lenders to sample and support in real life.
In the slim possibility that a loan is not paid back, would the money be tax deductible for the lender?
If the loan is not paid back, the loss can't be treated as a donation. Because the original intention of the funding was for a loan, any defaults are considered a loss to the lender. Kiva is a nonprofit and does not receive any money from the loans it facilitates. Kiva relies on donations (we call them "tips") from individuals to keep the system running. Tips made to Kiva are tax deductible.
Any words about the Milepoint Lending Team?
Kiva has been thrilled to work with the Milepoint team, and they have come up with creative ways of working with Kiva that no lending team before them has. They hosted a KivaDO conference in San Francisco that they planned themselves, they have created team giveaways to encourage lending and generous individuals from the team have offered to match loans made by that team and others. Their creativity has inspired our organization.
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