Kiva.org's Matt Flannery, and SustainAbility's John Elkington

My “midterm week”, even though I didn’t actually take any midterms, was hellish. I had two papers, two reaction mini-papers, a business proposal, and a financial statement to turn in. Plus two half-days of work.

But it was great. I went to two events that were inspiring.

Kiva.org

The first was held at the Brookings Institution across the street from Johns Hopkins SAIS. It featured Matt Flannery, the 30-year-old co-founder (with his wife) of Kiva.org, a tech company based in San Fran that lets individuals lend money to social entrepreneurs of their choice in developing nations. So you’d send $50 to someone looking to scale up their fruit stand in Uganda. Then you’d get that money back after they set up their business and re-pay you, and you can re-invest that money in another person. In effect it creates a fund/pool of money being used to push small business owners over the initial hurdle of startup capital, which is considerably less than the loans that people in the US need on similar social-lending sites like Prosper and Zopa. For instance, when I went to Prosper, most of the people featured needed like $9k to $25k to pay off or consolidate their credit card loans.

Come on! Meanwhile, you can contribute a small amount of money on Kiva.org, feel like you’re helping something important, and are given pretty good odds that you’ll get all your money back fairly quickly.

Anyway, Matt gave a powerpoint presentation with some interesting info. Some points:

-Kiva.org is severely lacking in social metrics. They didn’t track as well as they wanted the entrepreneurs they’d funded over time, to see how successful they ended up being. They didn’t have enough stories coming back from the field, either. I figured this would be a priority since it’s that social aspect that makes it so endearing to a lot of people seeking to lend money.

-Audits and visits became more and more important in preventing fraud. Being involved on the ground is important even for an Internet tech company.

-They went from 30 hits a day to 30k hits after getting picked up by DailyKos’s blog. Then they never suffered for funding or press again after that. But Matt said he went home from work and all the sudden had 1,000 e-mails waiting for him when he got home. That fast.

-Important to use locals on the ground, not just people sent to work on the ground. Cultural and social knowledge important in a community to know who’s trustworthy.

-Cultural sensitivities: Muslim shari’a law and interest, husbands didn’t want photos taken of their wives even for identification/loans.

Matt answered the invariably dumb questions from the crowd well. You see, at Q&A sessions, almost everyone who raises his hand either 1) pimps his company/organization, 2) asks some question that only relates to his particular situation and not to everyone else. But Matt would take these agenda-driven questions and answer them in terms that he was interested in, disregarding the rest. His key point was that Kiva.org was at the base of it a tech company and was neutral towards platforms or agendas or rights. He didn’t want to push people into donating more to specific regions of the world, for example. Why would you? It’s an open market he’s trying to set up. But people in DC don’t always understand it. You talk to five people and one will say women’s rights are the most important, another will say peace, another says freedom of speech, another market-based and big company solutions.

The event was packed. I RSVP’d late and was told it’d be full, but I went anyway and got a seat. People were standing in the back and packed into the side rooms watching a simulcast.

SustainAbility

My social entrepreneurship prof invited John Elkington, chief entrepreneur at SustainAbility, to come speak. He’s a smart guy. One of the original folks in sustainability issues and corporate social responsibility (CSR). He was promoting his new book, The Power of Unreasonable People, and talking about sustainability issues looking forward like a global pandemic, disappearance of honey bees, the need for a complete re-working of the UN, failures of social welfare systems because of things like global obesity and aging populations, and so on. He talked about how the latest trend will involve the rise of the entrepreneur in business and the death of most of the largest businesses today.

He specifically said he’d like to dynamite the UN and have one that’s built for the 21st century…and he thought it’d be interesting if a company like Google was behind it. So…I like the guy!