Microfinance and Volunteering: A Match Made in Kiva Heaven

Kiva Fellows Program(This is the first post of a new interview series at Engaging Volunteers.  We’ll be spotlighting volunteer programs that we think are especially interesting, or that could provide some great guidance to other nonprofits working with volunteers.  Want to see a particular nonprofit interviewed? Email us your idea.)

Kiva is the world’s first person-to-person lending marketplace for the poor. Kiva’s goal is to reduce global poverty by letting consumers lend to and connect with a specific developing world entrepreneur online.  As of November 2009, Kiva has facilitated over $100 million in loans.

JD Bergeron is Kiva’s Senior Director of Social Performance.  Before taking on his role developing the social performance practice at Kiva, JD led the development of the Kiva Fellows Program, which has become one of the largest and most sought after networks of microfinance volunteers in the world.  We think the Fellows Program is a unique and exciting volunteer set-up, and we jumped at the chance to talk to JD about it.

Q. How did the Kiva Fellows Program start?

JD: Unofficially, the program started in 2007 when the first “Kiva Fellow” went into the field.  Jessica Flannery (one of our founders) had traveled to Uganda in the summer of 2005 to mitigate concerns about the microfinance partners (MFIs) there.  After this trip, we realized the value of having people in the field.  It increases lenders’ trust in borrower stories, and it’s scalable.  Jessica’s trip became the model for the program.

I started at Kiva in May 2008 after four “unofficial” rounds of the program.  Coming over from the Peace Corps, I brought with me some best practices I’d learned, like naming the groups to give them more of an affinity to each other and capitalizing on the massive support for Kiva’s mission to keep the Program inexpensive.

Q. What are some of the challenges Kiva faced with the Program?

JD: Actually, we’re still facing them.  Recruitment is our biggest weakness, because we spend most of our budget on training.  It’s really tough to find people that speak different languages.  French-speaking developing countries tend to be less desirable, like Senegal and other places in West Africa.  We especially need people who speak Russian, Swahili, Vietnamese, Tagalog, and Arabic.  These are critical spots that are hard to fill.

Also, because the Fellows Program is fully volunteer-based, we worry that we’re not accessible to people of all backgrounds.  Not everyone can afford to leave their jobs for three months and support themselves in another country.  But the no-pay aspect of the Program does create a really amazing dynamic – the Fellows don’t feel obligated towards Kiva or anyone else, so they report what they see with no edits or biases.

Q. What role does technology play in the Fellows Program?

JD: Technology is an essential part of the Program.  The Fellows upload information and media about the borrowers and MFIs that lenders can see.  They also send critical information back to our engineers about the technological limitations of MFIs and developing countries in general.

The Program is supported by a Salesforce database, and we use wikis to maintain shared knowledge.  We use Skype to communicate, and online scheduling tools for calendar purposes.  So the emergence of the Cloud has been a key factor in the program’s growth.

Q. What impact has the Fellows Program had on Kiva as an organization?

JD: The impact on the staff has been wonderful.  The presence of the Fellows energizes everyone.  Our staff members have a tendency to show up during trainings to hang out with the new Fellows.  I think it’s a reaffirmation for us all of why we’re here doing what we’re doing.

Q. Where is the Fellows Program going next?

JD: We’ve noticed that many fellows come to us with some pretty great skills, and they’re able to bring best practices from their industries.  We want to further develop the Kiva Fellows Program so they can teach the MFIs in the field using their expertise.  The MFIs will improve and be able to help the economies of their countries even more.

Q. Do you have any advice for organizations that want to follow in your footsteps and develop long-term, international, and/or technologically based volunteer programs?

JD: A lot of our fellows have heard from other international volunteers (some from pretty well-known programs), that they’re jealous of how high the expectations are of Kiva Fellows.  We only place fellows where there’s vital work that needs to be done.  It’s important to make it clear that Kiva is invested in the project, and in providing guidance to our volunteers.

Also, we have a work plan on our web portal that helps guide the fellows in their roles and keeps them focused.  It’s a great use of the technology I was talking about earlier.

Finally, Kiva didn’t build this program alone, and all nonprofits are more successful when they work together.  I’d definitely be willing to answer any other questions nonprofits may have about our program or how our best practices can be applied to other organizations.  (If you’d like to get in touch with JD, email us and we’ll make it happen).

Click here for more information about the Kiva Fellows Program.
Click here to read the Kiva Fellows Blog.