March 8th, 2012
Re-printed with permission from The Grinnell Herald-Register. (Note: See below for final results)
March 1, 2012
MICRO-LENDER PROJECT DRAWS ATTENTION OF THE WHITE HOUSE
Grinnell nonprofit is national finalist; needs internet votes by March 3 to win
The White House Office of Public Engagement has selected the Social Entrepreneurs of Grinnell (SEG), a nonprofit microfinance lending organization, as one of 15 finalists in its “Campus Champions of Change Challenge.” Founded by Grinnell College students in 2007, SEG now has two microfinance lending programs and is about to launch a third. Five winners in the White House Challenge are being chosen by internet voting which closes a minute before midnight this Saturday, March 3.
SEG was chosen as one of 15 finalists from among more than 1,400 submissions in response to the White House Challenge. SEG is the only organization from Iowa and the only organization based at a small college among the finalists. The Campus Champions of Change initiative highlights innovative ideas on college campuses across the country and aims to inspire others to get involved in their communities.
“This selection is a testament to the hard work and determination of Grinnell students to make our country a better place,” said Grinnell College President Raynard Kington. “What began as a small group of students collecting quarters and dimes in dorm rooms has become a nationally-recognized model for community change.”
SEG began by providing international loans in remote communities. Two years ago it added a program aimed at improving conditions in the local community. It has loaned out over $37,000 to 44 countries, with $13,000 going to 25 individuals in the Grinnell area. It is about to launch a third loan program focused on local entrepreneurs.
SEG began its lending by finding projects on the Kiva web site, known for putting entrepreneurs around the world together with microfinancing. That set a basic principle, explains current SEG President and Grinnell College Professor Emeritus of Anthropology Doug Caulkins. SEG finds and partners with other organizations familiar with possible borrowers to locate people or organizations for its low-interest micro-loans.
SEG has formed relationships with several organizations in Nicaragua which started as borrowers and have since hosted interns and visitors from the U.S. One is a soy garden, founded to fight local malnutrition and now a model non-governmental organization for others aspiring to feed the hungry. SEG’s first loan to the soy garden was $630, and it has since loaned another $2,630. Another Nicaraguan borrower is a food cooperative, selling farmers supplies and buying vegetables, which has created a market for the farmers’ produce and a supply of local food for residents.
Two years ago SEG partnered with Mid-Iowa Community Action (MICA) to offer emergency no-interest loans to local residents to pay for things like medical expenses, automobile repairs, education and repayment of high-interest loans from payday loan sharks. MICA provides the first filter, referring people in need.
SEG has recruited community liaisons who then pair off with a student to sit down with the potential borrower and work out terms. The community liaison remains available to assist the borrower and can re-schedule payments if that becomes necessary. Serving as community liaisons are Emily Moore, Kevin Lilly, Doug Caulkins, Kirsten Klepfer, Ray Obermiller, Amy Graves, Stan Greenwald, Kent McClelland and Betty Moffett.
SEG is about to launch a micro-loan program for local entrepreneurs in partnership with the Grinnell Area Chamber of Commerce which will provide referrals. Caulkins points to another emphasis of SEG, getting current students and alumni working together on a project.
Alumna Amelia Lobo of Iowa City is experienced in the micro-loan field and taught a short course last year on local entrepreneurial loans. Two other alums and Grinnell business people, Jeff Phelps in retail and Jeff Dickey-Chasins in web-based projects, will serve as community advisers. SEG also plans to draw on the expertise of other alumni working in the specific areas from which applications for loans come.
“We’re trying to recruit our alums because this is one way of engaging our students and allowing them to learn from our alumni,” Caulkins explains.
SEG has three student committees which deal with applications from the three areas in which it conducts lending. In addition to Caulkins, the board includes Grinnellian Kirsten Klepfer as treasurer; Monty Roper, Grinnell College associate professor of anthropology; and two alumni and co-founders of SEG who no longer live here, Jeff Raderstrong, a communications associate in Washington, D.C., and Emily Kugisaki, a middle school teacher in Seattle. Two student coordinators serve in SEG’s leadership this semester, Kathy Andersen and Noah Most.
“It is an honor to be included on this list of inspiring campus change-makers,” said Grace Philipp, a Grinnell College student who along with fellow student Kyle Walters spearheaded entry into the White House Challenge. “Our members have worked hard over the last five years to make this a reality, and whether or not we win, we will continue working to empower individuals with access to credit in our community and around the world.”
“This is a very compassionate organization,” adds Caulkins. “Everyone involved with it is driven by a sense of making a difference in the world. We’re tremendously proud of the students who have been so passionate and determined in building this program. It’s already been successful. Being selected for this prestigious award by the White House, it’s going to be even more successful in the future
“This has been a tremendous help to us in terms of publicity,” Caulkins continues. “Previously we were under-publicized in the town of Grinnell. Being finalists in this challenge by the White House means we’re getting a lot of attention.”
SEG has created a way for visitors to its web site to donate to the organization. Caulkins adds that members of the college’s Board of Trustees were so generous recently with their contributions that the organization will add over $4,000 to its funds available for lending. SEG’s web site is segrinnell.org.
Voting for the challenge continues until Saturday, March 3, at 11:59 p.m. Voters can cast up to three votes and can cast all three for a single organization. The top five finalists will be invited to an event at the White House, will be featured on mtvU and MTV Act, and the overall winner will host an episode of mtvU’s signature program, “The Dean’s List.”
To vote for SEG in the White House’s Campus Champions of Change Challenge, visit: http://bit.ly/vote4seg.
The five winners of the public vote were as follows:
59,841 UMASS Amherst Permaculture Initiative – Ryan Harb, University of Massachusetts at Amherst
57,118 Full Circle Food Pantry – Julia Lyon, Volunteer Action Center, University of Arkansas
25,379 Swipes for the Homeless – Thach Tak Nguyen, UCLA
22,799 Moneythink – Ted Gonder, University of Chicago