Social Enterprise

Five Talents: Where Sustainable Enterprise Meets… Religion?

The microfinance industry has received significant criticism in the past few years. A boom in the sector during the first part of the century, catalyzed by the success of Muhammad Yunus’s Grameen Bank, was until recently being described by some as the beginning of the end of poverty. The industry, however, expanded faster than the institutions themselves could keep up with. High interest rates, mismanagement of loan funds, and irresponsible collection practices turned supporters into skeptics, who began to view the industry less as a way of helping the poor and more as an avenue for profiteering at their expense. Today, many in the microfinance space remain firm believers in its potential to alleviate poverty, but struggle to dissociate themselves from the predatory institutions that defamed the practice.

One such believer is Five Talents, a nonprofit microfinance institution based out of Vienna, Virginia. Being a nonprofit allows Five Talents to focus less on achieving returns and more on  providing clients with tools such as business training and savings opportunities, tools that ensure the responsible management of funds and increase the likelihood of repayment.

“We are not a commercial for-profit microfinance institution. We are a nonprofit organization sending grant funding to organizations to enable them to reach the poorest of the poor in the unreached communities where other MFIs will not go because its not ‘profitable for them,’” explained Sonia Patterson, Executive Director of Five Talents.

But being structured as a nonprofit is perhaps not the most notable feature that distinguishes Five Talents from other MFIs. “[Five Talents] is so much more than just one thing,” Sonia continued. “It’s savings, it’s credit, it’s business training, it’s a spiritual framework on how you can use your God-given talents in your life.”

Yes, you read correctly; on top of microfinance and business training services, Five Talents offers spiritual guidance to their clients. In fact, the organization was first conceived at the 1998 Lambeth Conference of Anglican Bishops as a means of improving the economic standards in countries in the Anglican communion around the world. The three key founding members consisted of an Australian entrepreneur, Mr. David Bussau, and two leaders in the Anglican Church: Rt. Rev. Simon Chiwanga and the Bishop of Mpwapwa in Tanzania.

Many of our readers might see an inherent conflict between religion and business. Despite religion having informed much of what we know about business ethics, management practices, and in some cases having defined the business itself (as in religious tourism), many hold the two entities as distinct and far removed, their purposes divergent, if not conflicting. However, if we allow ourselves to expand our traditional notions of business to include social enterprise, religion seems to encounter a more receptive framework where the entities meet. The result is an area unique to social enterprise where three distinct bodies – business, philanthropy, and religion – overlap and share common goals and values.

Speaking from the perspective of a Christian upbringing, virtues such as charity, solidarity, and stewardship are at the core of much religious teaching. Whether pious or secular, these values are usually no different from those of the social entrepreneur. Typically, social enterprise and religious institutions part ways when it comes to the manifestation of these values, but in others, as with the case of Five Talents, the two align.

Using the infrastructural network established by the Anglican Church, Five Talents is able to access remote areas of the world and tap into existing local partnerships to reach people typically out of the reach of other MFIs. Since its inception, Five Talents has worked with these local partners to mobilize US $5 million, providing more than 120,000 loans, and empowering more than 65,000 entrepreneurs through business training programs, microlending, and the establishment of savings and loans associations. Using the common practice of group lending and concentrating their loans among women, they have achieved loan repayment rates of upwards of 93%.

“It’s all about giving people the skills and gifts to empower them to take control. At the end of the day if they don’t have the right opportunities or the right framework to understand how to run businesses, then its going to be difficult for them be sustainable in their own little microenterprise,” explained Sonia Patterson, Executive Director of Five Talents. “But if you give them business-skill training and you can teach them how to save money and how to invest it, and how to grow their little business models, then you can teach them how to be sustainable over time.”

Though affiliated with the Anglican Church, the team at Five Talents does not in any way discriminate based on the religious beliefs of those they serve. Rather, their Christian faith serves as compass to guide their work, and, in some respects, to reconcile the shortcomings of many other microfinance institutions. The mission of the organization is derived from the same Bible passage from which it derives its name. Matthew 25: 14-30 reads, “‘Master,’ he said, ‘You have entrusted me with five talents. See, I have gained five more.’” The lesson that Five Talents takes from this parable is one in how to run a business: to use what little is given to produce something sustainable and thriving.

If taken out of context, the lesson cannot and need not be attributed to a single system of thought. It is a principle with broad applications; one that not only underlies religious teachings across denominations, but also serves as the foundation of any successful business. Of course, everyone will have his own view on religion, his own beliefs and interpretation of text, his own view of a “successful” business for that matter. Yet if we can expand our view of business to include the notions of solidarity and stewardship, as we have in the case of social enterprise, then perhaps religion itself might be able to find a place in our broadened conception.

As a parting piece of advice for social entrepreneurs, Sonia emphasized the importance of partnering with existing organizations in order to achieve a desired goal. It’s important to remember, Sonia said, “there are no new ideas, it’s just who’s doing it better then someone else.” By leveraging the widespread local partnerships of the Anglican Church, Five Talents serves as a testament to how such alliances can lead to broad and sustainable impact.

Visit the Five Talents site to learn more, or visit them at their page on YS Pages.

About the author

Will graduated from Boston College with a degree in Economics and Communications. He is currently part of the IDEX Fellowship in Social Enterprise and is working at with a focus on social entrepreneurship. Follow him @W_S_Sloan

2 thoughts on “Five Talents: Where Sustainable Enterprise Meets… Religion?

  1. I applaud the work of Five Talents. Such an approach to microfinance is essential if we are to restore some semblance of respect to the embattled sector. However, Biblical references and Christian ethics may be a double-edged sword. Take the issue of extortionate interest rates, for example. Most people would consider an interest rate over 100% per year to be rather high. Yunus himself suggests rates over approximately 30% have crossed the red-line. So why does the Christian microfinance operator Opportunity International charge rates of 161.4% in Ghana? Or 152.7% in Mozambique? The transparency initiative calculates the actual APRs of a wide range of microfinance institutions across the world, and has covered a number of countries where Opportunity International operate. Cordaid and Oikocredit (two Dutch microfinance funds with Christian origins) support Tujijenge in Tanzania which charges rates of approximately 150% and according to the microfinance rating agency Planet Rating scored the second lowest grade for “client protection and ethical finance” ever. So, I would point out a couple of additional Bible verses to these players:

    Exodus 22:25 “If you lend money to one of my people among you who is needy, do not treat it like a business deal; charge no interest.”

    Ezekiel 22:12 “In you are people who accept bribes to shed blood; you take interest and make a profit from the poor. You extort unjust gain from your neighbours. And you have forgotten me, declares the Sovereign LORD.”

    The fundamental problem in microfinance is hype. We make false promises, claims we cannot live up to, present isolated cases of positive impact when it suits us, brush many issues under the carpet, ignore the overwhelming academic evidence that microfinance is having a minimal impact on poverty, engage in ludicrous PR campaigns, fail to regulate the sector or consider the impact of microfinance on the children of the so-called entrepreneurs, pretend that all microfinance is invested in businesses while a large part is simply for consumption or repaying loans to other banks, and turn a blind eye to the glaring reality. The lure of profit is simply too great. When banks such as Compartmos (interest rates of 195% according to David Roodman at the Center for Global Development) do massively profitable IPOs netting hundreds of millions of dollars for their lucky investors, we conveniently forget to ask where the profit originates from. The IPO of SKS was hailed as a success, while their clients were reportedly committing suicide under excessive pressure from the loan officers. We lost our soul, and to regain it we need more institutions like Five Talents and fewer institutions such as Citibank, Deutsche Bank and other profit-motivated entities who see the poor as walking dollar bills to enrich them and their shareholders.

    Above all, we need to start being honest and transparent about microfinance.

  2. my name is owusu Afriyie from Ghana …we have formed a group of people who wants to help break de vicious cycle by helping our youth learn a trade…such as making of african and exotic beads….soap making…batik tie and die….liquid soaps…parazone…film editing…camera works..and some few others ….in the mean time we have acquired a place where we can offer this assurance but we are financially locked up in the way..please we need the necessary support to help our communities …..e..mail ..mayday community

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