Changing Lives With Spare Change: My Two Cents on Microfinance

03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

A couple of days ago I put on a coat I haven't worn in a long time and in the inside pocket I found $27. It was like an early Christmas present. I thought of all the things I could do with that money: take a friend to the movies, have a nice lunch at a place with table cloths, or turn it into a micro-loan that can change somebody's life forever.

On the same day that I found the money in my coat pocket, a friend asked me "What makes you happy?"

The list is long but at the very top is "helping people help themselves." More than anything, I believe people want to be self-sustaining, contributing members of society. The idea that you can give $27 to a woman in a developing country who lives in extreme poverty and teach her how to run a business, provide her with education and health care, and set her on the path to a better life is endlessly fascinating to me. I love the microfinance approach because instead of being a welfare model, it's a model that puts the recipient at the center of the solution. And in doing so, the victory is a thousand times sweeter.

I first heard about microfinance in 2006, after seeing Muhammad Yunus on The Oprah Winfrey Show. Professor Yunus had just won the Nobel Peace Prize for his work as the founder of the innovative and phenomenally successful Grameen Bank in Bangladesh. I've always quietly given money to charities, but after listening to Dr. Yunus' philosophy about giving tiny loans to the poorest of the poor, and the fact that he began this venture with a $27 loan out of his own pocket, I was inspired to contribute my time and energy, as well.

An internet search led me to US-based Grameen Foundation. They're not a microfinance institution (MFI) like the Grameen Bank. But they model themselves after Dr. Yunus' philosophy: help people help themselves. Grameen Foundation assists MFI's in the developing world become more effective and efficient by providing loans, human resources, research, technology and education.
I asked for a meeting with Grameen Foundation president, Alex Counts. I wanted him to know I was "all in."

A month after that meeting, Alex and I traveled to Haiti to see the result of a successful partnership between Grameen Foundation and an MFI called Fonkoze. It was a phenomenal trip. I had no idea what to expect. All I knew was that Haiti is the poorest country in the Western hemisphere. Indeed, it is like a forgotten country. After decades of political corruption, even its own government seems to have given up on its people. In Port-au-Prince, I was struck by the miserable living conditions all over the city. I was stunned by the vast number of people who clearly had no job to go to and sat or stood aimlessly by the side of the road waiting for something to change.

Fonkoze primarily reaches out to the rural poor who are especially isolated and disenfranchised, so we spent most of our trip visiting these borrowers in the Central Plateau. Ninety-nine percent of Fonkoze's borrowers are women and in order to best serve them, they have developed four tiers of assistance.

The first and newest tier doesn't even involve a monetary loan. It involves giving the borrower an asset such as a goat or chickens and teaching them how to raise them.

Adeline lived in a mud hut with her three children, the father of whom came and went, providing no measurable support. As a woman who lives in an especially isolated rural area and makes less than a dollar a day, Adeline was given a goat to begin her journey out of poverty. She was also enrolled in an 18-month program that includes basic education, bi-monthly visits from a Fonkoze staff member, health care, and home improvement.

While this intimate, hands-on approach is incredibly labor intensive for both Adeline and Fonkoze, I'm convinced it's the reason the program is so successful. Ninety-nine percent of its participants graduate to the next tier and receive their first micro-loan. I'm telling you, it's one of the most fantastic phenomenons I've ever had the privilege to witness.

Now, six months later, I doubt Adeline remembers me. But as I go about my daily life, she stays with me. She inspires me to work harder and be as successful as I possibly can. Having seen first hand how a little bit can go a very long way, I know exactly what I want to do with that $27 I found in my coat pocket.