Anthony Westbury: Grassroots financing helping those who need it the most

Anthony Westbury
4:00 AM, Jul 25, 2014
anthony westbury | st lucie county

What do 117 strangers in 11 countries on five continents, and 29 states in this country, have in common?

In the space of less than a week, they banded together to lend two Treasure Coast women they’ve never met enough money to buy $12,000 worth of new air conditioning equipment.

Why would people like Hannah from Germany, James from the United Kingdom or Ruben from the Netherlands bother to contribute an average of $50 each to Frances Rowan in Port St. Lucie or Mischelle Miller in Vero Beach?
The answer is crowdsourcing, sometimes called peer-to-peer financing.

You may have come across crowdsourcing being used on the Internet to raise money to produce movies or fund other artistic ventures. Now the concept is being used by the Solar Energy Loan Fund on the Treasure Coast to help people reduce their power bills.

SELF is working through, a global nonprofit organization that connects people through lending to alleviate poverty.

Using the Internet as a mass marketing device, Kiva lets individuals lend as little as $25 to “help create opportunity.” It’s a grass roots way to help people who otherwise would be ignored by the mainstream banking system.
Even though individual contributions may be small, the totals are anything but.

Since it was founded in 2006, Kiva has amassed 1.2 million lenders and given out $591 million in loans. Perhaps more impressive is that the repayment rate is 98.87 percent, much higher than a regular bank.
As loan recipients repay their debts, the lenders can choose to either get their money back or put it back into the pot to assist more people.

SELF has been working for the past two years to set up the program here, according to its Executive Director Doug Coward. The organization was recently accepted as a field office on an experimental basis, and has been given a “first step” lending limit of $50,000.

If all goes well, Coward hopes SELF will eventually graduate to financing up to $2 million.

“SELF seems to be the only operation in North America that is doing energy retrofit projects,” Coward said. “We’re obviously delighted to be affiliated with them.”

Coward said his staff had noticed a strong demand for SELF loans from single women. Having gone through a divorce or suffered a foreclosure, their credit was ruined. Even though they held jobs or owned their home, banks refused to loan money.

The Kiva model sets a 30-day limit to pull in the targeted amount of money. If the goal isn’t met within that time frame, the money goes back to the lenders.
Coward is hoping to start what he calls an “angel fund” on the Treasure Coast in case funding runs short. Local wealthier donors would make up the difference.
SELF so far has financed 272 loans totaling $2.3 million using more conventional financing methods, yet too many people were still falling through the cracks. and SELF are starting small, but using crowdsourcing in this way looks to have potential to help a lot of people.

Frances Rowan of Port St. Lucie — one of the first two Kiva loan recipients — burst into tears during a television interview as she explained how temperatures in her fixer-upper home regularly reach between 90 and 100 degrees. After buying her home, she discovered roof leaks, a ceiling collapsed and the air conditioner went out. Repairs were beyond her means, she said. came through with a loan of almost $5,000 to buy a new AC unit.

“I can’t believe people all over the world have helped me,” Rowan sobbed, “and people I know didn’t.”

So thanks Marcel from Johannesburg, Johanna from Stockholm, Meg from Chicago and all the other 114 other amazing individuals who reduced Rowan to tears.
Your generosity has restored my faith in the essential goodness of humanity.

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The Author

Reporting and New Project Officer

Jacqueline is currently earning her degree in Computer Science with a focus on Software Engineering. She gained experience with SELF by volunteering time to assist with DOE reporting, ARRA & County as well as internal reporting. She also assisted in the development of the new Management Information System (MIS). Due to her high performance, she was hired on a part time basis as the IT and Reporting Associate and is now performing several duties including; troubleshooting hardware/software issues, data management assistance, graphic design and web maintenance. She is also responsible for SELF’s internal “ RESULTS DASHBOARD” a well as completing reports to various government and funding organizations. Hudson works in close liaison with all staff members to collect information and reports to directly to the CFO as well as to the Executive Director when needed, on all aspects regarding data and systems.