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.