Partner Politics, Or, How to Motivate a Loan Officer

When most of us think Kiva, we picture the website and hard-working entrepreneurs standing in their corner stores or out in their fields. Kiva is, after all, a direct connection between lenders and borrowers. Well…sorta kinda. You are probably aware that Kiva works through field partners—the “middlemen” who find loan clients, approve loans, and submit borrower profiles for the Kiva Community to fund. But after nearly three months working with one of those field partners, I have come to the tough realization that this process can be a clunky one. What happens when loan officers can’t or simply don’t want to post a Kiva loan? It begs the question of who exactly is benefiting from Kiva. In this vein, I attempt to elucidate the push and pull between entrepreneur, institution, loan officer and last but not least, the Kiva Fellow caught in the middle.

For the field partner itself—mine happens to be FAMA, located in Juticalapa, Honduras—the benefits of Kiva are obvious. They receive interest-free funding from lenders. The interest they collect back from clients can be used to reach more clients, lower interest rates or work toward institutional sustainability. The benefit for the client is also somewhat clear: an institution that partners with Kiva is able to expand its clientele and offer more robust services. But what about the loan officer who does the legwork to liaise with the borrower? After all, creating the Kiva profile is not easy. Loan officers must conduct an interview, take a picture and explain what Kiva is to each client, obtaining the borrower’s written consent to use their information. This last step is trickier than it seems: telling a borrower in rural Honduras that thousands of people may see their picture on the internet is not always a clear concept. Many clients here at FAMA, and I imagine world-wide, simply don’t want their picture on the internet, or feel uncomfortable sharing personal details. Beyond this, loan officers might find it difficult to coordinate use of the office camera, or get hampered by the fact that Kiva’s loan amount caps do not match their client’s needs.

At FAMA, the partnership with Kiva has meant a significant cultural shift for the loan officers and Kiva Coordinator (whose job it is to upload the borrower profiles to the Kiva website). Suddenly, they are asked to complete entirely new tasks that have never been a part of the daily routine. When I first arrived at FAMA, the loan officers showed much enthusiasm for the fund and understood the basic concepts of the tasks before them. I was pleased that my Kiva presentations had gone over so well. Yet week after week went by and Kiva loans trickled in at a snail’s pace. The reality, it appeared, was much more complicated than my slick powerpoint presentation had implied.

Working to change the culture at FAMA has been a struggle. As a large and self-sufficient institution, FAMA sees Kiva as one of many sources of funding, which has forced me to be aggressive in getting Kiva onto the docket. Happily, FAMA managers, also noting the lack of Kiva loans being brought in, recently implemented an incentives plan for loan officers. They receive about $1.60 per Kiva client they submit. Many other institutions do not have the luxury of offering monetary incentives, and rely on staff appraisals, public recognition, and encouraging notes and posters to motivate the loan officers. As my colleagues report, these strategies do work in some environments, but it’s hard to imagine such a scheme being successful at FAMA. It is a keen reminder of just how unique each field partner is.

My role has been a delicate one. The loan officers tell me that they sometimes struggle to find clients who fit Kiva’s policies, or that they simply don’t have time. Managers tell me they want to increase the number of Kiva loans coming in, and expect me–an outsider–to motivate the loan officers. The clients, whether Kiva entrepreneurs or not, just want to ensure that they continue to receive high quality services. As that outsider, I endeavor not to step on any toes while remaining sympathetic to the conflicting but legitimate views presented. The question thus becomes what is best for Kiva and what is best for the entrepreneurs. The answer, as I’ve found, is not easy to see, mired in the individual politics and bureaucracies of each field partner. The conflict has made me appreciate the role of the Fellow in a much more nuanced way than I would have thought possible after only three months.

Slowly but surely I am witnessing the shift toward accepting Kiva as an everyday part of FAMA. As they get the hang of it, loan officers are building excitement about the loans, sharing their triumphs with me and asking many, many questions. Promoting a cultural shift in an established organization is not an easy task. In fact, I would argue that it is one of the greatest and most exciting challenges that Kiva Fellows face. I am eager to see what the future brings for FAMA and its Kiva clients.

Betsy McCormick, KF12, Honduras

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