From slacktivist to microfinancier

“If you support non-invasive treatments for homeless babies with scabies, copy this post and make it your status update for today. “

Karen Hitchcock photography

Don't look the other way, give.

If the last time you supported a cause was with a status update, you just might be a slacktivist. Trough of all human knowledge, Wikipedia.org, describes slacktivism:  “The word is considered a pejorative term that describes “feel-good” measures, in support of an issue or social cause, that have little or no practical effect other than to make the person doing it feel satisfaction. The acts also tend to require little personal effort from the slacktivist.”

While I fully support the use of social media to create awareness and back worthwhile causes, I’m wondering if, as a society, we’ve gotten a little loose with the term “support.”  You cannot Tweet or Facebook status your advocacy and call it a day.  Do I support finding a cure to cancer or AIDS, alleviating poverty and finding treatments for babies with scabies? You betcha! Have I put my money or time where my proverbial mouth is?

Simply put, it’s not enough to support. You must do.  And “do” can be done in many ways.  There are myriad non-profit organizations that need volunteer hours and cash donations. Of late, however, I’m enamored with another idea – becoming a micro lender myself.  It’s actually quite simple and there are many different ways to get involved as a micro-lender.

What is micro financing or micro lending? Where traditional lending institutions fear to, or cannot, tread, there are a host of micro lenders that will lend money to individuals or groups who have a great idea and initiative, but may not be credit-worthy in the traditional sense. The finance rate is slightly higher than a bank, about 8-11%, but generally micro lenders provide more support for their clients and funded loans are between $500-$1,000.

How hot is micro lending? This industry is growing fast because we can see the the net positive affects loans have in a community. In fact, just this month, “father” of the micro lending movement, Muhammad Yunus, was just honored with the US Congressional gold medal for his work to alleviate povery.

So where do you start?

To begin playing in the lending space, visit kiva.org. Last year I read about the Kiva organization, which connects people like me (and you) with people throughout the world who need relatively little money to make big changes in their lives. Yes, little old me in Madison, Wisconsin (for only about $25) can go from slacktivist to micro financier.  The model is pretty simple. You select the person or group to whom you’d like to lend money. Make your donation through PayPal and, typically, receive your money back in 12-18 months. Of course, this lending isn’t without risk; but the risk level is probably lower than investing in the stock market. In fact, Kiva gives risk ratings to all their field partners so you have information to take action.

And let’s face it, $25 to a middle class American is not much. But to a woman in the developing world, $25 can mean the difference between a viable business and poverty.

Ready for the Next Level?

If your Kiva experience motivated you to fund the dreams of real people, you can step up your involvement on a local level. Right here in Wisconsin, the Wisconsin Women’s Business Initiative Coalition (WBBIC) is a non-profit organization that funds small business ventures to the tune of $1,000-$100,000. And, despite the nomenclature, WWBIC provides loans to men too.

WWBIC’s program director, Ruth Rohlich, explains that WWBIC is funded by many sources, including the Small Business Administration, the State of Wisconsin and even the city of Madison to name a few. But their loan funds also depend on private contributions. Ruth says, “Every year my parents donate a couple hundred dollars to WWBIC. It may not seem like a lot, but when some people only need a couple thousand to fund their dreams, a couple hundred can make a big difference.”

Your contributions to WWBIC are tax-deductible and when you donate, you’re helping fund small business ventures right in your backyard. There is a strong argument to be made (on both sides of the political aisle) that small business creation and growth is critical in rebuilding our battered economy.  In fact, companies of 500 or less employ over half of our nation’s workers.

So helping fund new business is what I’d call a win-win-win. You win, personally, by helping others and receiving a tax deduction in return.  And we all win when small businesses grow, hire employees and strengthen our economy, local and beyond. You never know. One of WWBIC’s booming businesses just might hire you some day!

Results of WWBIC’s microfinancing program can be seen all over Madison.  The new Green Owl Café, a vegan restaurant on Madison’s east side, is an example of lending that has made a difference. Jenny Christianson wanted to start a vegan restaurant; she knew there was a need, but wasn’t sure how to tackle running a restaurant.  That’s where WWBIC came in. Not only did they fund Jenny’s idea, but also they helped her every step of the way by assigning her a business mentor to whom she can consult on her business.

This mentor model, according to Ruth Rohlich, is why so many of WWBIC loans succeed. “We can’t all be great at absolutely every part of a business. Someone may have a great product, but they may need a mentoring partner to help them tell the story,” explains Ruth. That’s why WWBIC and its loan recipients rely on volunteer business mentors to create successful enterprises. Do you see where I’m going next?

Taking it to the Top.

Now that you’ve seen your dollars hard at work, you may decide that you want bury the slacktivist in you forever. You’ve donated a little money overseas. Now you’ve donated $200 to WWBIC. Look at you– off the couch and making things happen!

If you’re ready to take it the top, get ready to donate some time too. Become a WWBIC business mentor or instructor for a class. WBBIC loan applicants and recipients need information in a variety of disciplines. Are you a social media strategist? Help a WWBIC member get their Facebook page up and running if appropriate. Accounting whiz? Maybe you could volunteer to review some books and identify tax breaks or incentives previously overlooked? Are you a legal eagle? Strut your stuff by teaching people how to protect themselves against common legal pitfalls.

Not sure how your specialty translates? Become a cheerleader for a developing business. Starting a business is hard work and often a lonely process. Having someone cheer for your success and listen to your challenges is just as important as teaching tax code.

Are you ready to reap the deep, personal rewards of shucking your slacktivist title? Follow my advice and please let us know about your journey through blog comments, email or photos.

I originally penned this article for a magazine that was to launch in October 2011. However, I post it now as the magazine may not launch and the article will not appear within. Enjoy!

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