7 Tips on How to Infiltrate Your MFI

The office of ADICLA in Sololá, Guatemala

Building relationship for a better Fellowship at the offices of ADICLA in Sololá, Guatemala

As in life, the key to a happy, healthy and productive Kiva Fellowship is largely based on the relationships you form with those around you. The difference with this experience however, is that you don’t have the opportunity to spend years earning trust, respect and admiration from your peers. You must find a way to infiltrate the hearts and minds of your colleagues and clients in a relatively short period of time in order to truly be successful.

With that being said, there is no relationship more influential to the success of your Kiva Fellowship than the one you build with your MFI (microfinance institution). If you win them over, the rest will sort itself out; at least, that is what has happened for me.

I’ve been working with the ADICLA organization here in Sololá, Guatemala for two months now and have focused my time on forming bonds and building relationships with everyone in the office.

I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t intimidated at first, joining such a young and ambitious group who are so close knit and dependent of one another.

Thanks to a few years of travel experience and living abroad, I’ve developed a number of key tips and reminders to help myself penetrate a foreign place and build relationships in a short period of time.

Here are the 7 things I’ve done to adapt and build trust within my MFI that might help you do the same, be it with your Kiva fellowship, a new job, or even that hottie at the end of the bar.

1. Mold to their Work Culture – I received some great advice before I arrived in Guatemala from former Kiva Fellow, Eric Burdullis, who said, “work the same hours they do, everyday, and you will earn their trust.” Since day one, I’ve worked Monday through Friday, from 8am until the guys I work with leave. This doesn’t seem like much of a tip, but being present and available is key. Like they always say, showing up is half the battle.

I have also learned to go at the pace of the office. What I mean is, being at work doesn’t always mean you’re working. If you adapt to the culture first, you’ll have opportunities to have a greater influence down the road.

Give respect and you will receive it.

2. Accept invitations (and follow through) – A few of the guys at the office told me about a French couple who volunteered at ADICLA last year and how they never ate anything anyone would offer them. At first, I didn’t think much of it but they’ve brought it up on multiple occasions, so it obviously still bothers them.

Unlike in the States, where it’s customary to say, “no thanks” to invitations of food or drink in a visitor’s house or office, in Latin America, it’s borderline rude to decline the other half of a sandwich or freshly brewed coffee if you’re offered.

An extension of this idea is accepting invitations to outside-the-office activities that build deeper bonds with co-workers. For example, last weekend I attended my first high school graduation in Guatemala for one of the interns at the office. I bought him a gift and spent the afternoon talking to co-workers and family members about nothing in particular.

It would have been easier to spend the afternoon at home or doing my own thing, but it’s the effort you show to be a part of the team that makes an impact.

The graduation of a ADICLA intern in Sololá

The ADICLA intern/graduate giving a thank you speech to everyone who came to his party (including the Gringo)

3. Grow More Skin – I’m the new guy in the office, the only foreigner, and I don’t speak perfect Spanish. These are just a few of the reasons for the ADICLA crew to bust my chops, but I’ve shown them I can take it as well as I can dish it, so we’ve been able to talk freely, and in return we’ve been able to tackle more obstacles together.

Not everyone will have the opportunity to create this rapport simply because of MFI office dynamics, but everyone should understand that there will be interpersonal obstacles that only thick skin and a positive attitude can overcome.

4. Be Nice without Being a Pushover – One obstacle I faced at the beginning of this fellowship was that a few of my associates thought I was being paid handsomely for my work and that I should pick up the tab everywhere we go. I made the mistake of paying for lunch a few times when we first started and from that point on it became expected.

Thanks to the relationship we had formed, I was able to tell them directly that I’d be happy to buy once in a while if it was reciprocated… they decided it was better if we all paid for our own meals from then on.

Sharing is caring in Guatemala

Going Dutch in Guatemala. You have to tell them that the fruit smoothies aren’t free forever.

5. Be Fun without Being a Clown – I love entertaining and razzing, but I’ve learned there is a time and place for everything. Earn their trust and admiration first and their laughter second. Simply put, nobody respects a clown.

6. Ask Questions – It’s always easier to just smile, listen and agree, but it’s when you engage other people with questions that you truly understand what’s going on. Not only that, but it shows you care about what’s going on.

In particular, when visiting borrowers it would be easy for me to just sit around and watch my MFI’s loan officer do all the talking, but that doesn’t benefit anyone accept time. Not only do I prove to the borrower, as a representative of Kiva, that I care, but I also show my field partner that I’m here for a reason.

Hanging out with some borrowers in the fields of Sololá

No better way to get to know Kiva borrowers then some quality Q&A time in the fields of Sololá

7. Be Yourself from Day 1 – If you’re just passing through an MFI for a day or so, be whomever you would like. However, if you plan on staying a while it’s best if you were yourself, because eventually the real you will surface and you don’t want to surprise anyone.

There you have it, a few ways for you to infiltrate your MFI and get the most out of your Kiva Fellowship. I’m sure I’ll learn much more in the coming months, so stayed tuned for an entire post on mixing business and pleasure… just kidding.

About the author


Born in Indiana and raised in Upstate New York, Gareth was addicted to basketball and dreamed of growing up to become a famous actor. All that changed when he went away to college and found his passion for business and the stock market. He changed his major from liberal arts to a double major in Finance and Economics, started the Entrepreneur's Club, tended bar three nights a week and joined a start-up college textbook company that rivaled the on-campus store. After graduation, Gareth took on the role of Marketing Director with the textbook business and helped expand the dorm room start-up into a multi-million dollar online textbook marketplace with stores in New York, Utah and California. Six years later, he found himself working non-stop for someone else’s dream and for an organization that he was not passionate about. In 2009, Gareth uprooted everything comfortable in his life and bought a one-way ticket to Buenos Aires, Argentina on a quest to submerge himself in a foreign culture and push personal limitations. Since then, he has lived in Argentina, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia, building relationships, learning Spanish and adapting to his surrounding while moonlighting as a marketing consultant.