My Social Actions

The Lend4Health Journey: Why I'm Not KIVA

If you have been following my blog posts here on SocialActions, you know that Lend4Health was inspired by three things: (1) My own personal story/life experience, (2) My desire to help others, and (3) KIVA.

When I started Lend4Health, I really thought that I was making another KIVA site, just that the cause at hand was health instead of poverty.

Now, five months into this, I realize that Lend4Health, while rooted in the KIVA model of online microloans, is a very different "animal" from KIVA. I wanted to take this opportunity here to share my experience of how an entrepreneurial idea for one thing can quickly become something else.

Note before I begin: I think KIVA is the greatest thing ever (which is why I thought I was copying it!). This post should not be taken as a slight to KIVA in any way!!!

DIFFERENCE #1: The "Us" and the "Them"

When I started Lend4Health, I thought that the borrowers would be those in the autism community, and the lenders would be "strangers" from the online community. I thought I was mirroring the concept on KIVA, where the borrowers are the entrepreneurs in the developing countries, and the lenders are the collective "WE" -- sitting on our comfy couches, sipping our Starbucks -- making a $25 loan to "THEM."

While many of "US" (the lenders) on KIVA may be entrepreneurs, business owners, or farmers and can empathize with "THEM" (the borrowers), most of "US" have never had to live on $2 a week, and we don't REALLY know what it's like to decide between food on the table for our kids, or sending those kids to school.

There is an "US" and "THEM" situation going on, and one great thing about KIVA is that it brings those two together in a very human way.

On Lend4Health, though, something different -- and very unplanned -- is happening. The vast majority of people making the loans (so far) are ALSO struggling to treat their children. They are ALSO trying to choose between paying for the doctor's visit or the electrical bill because they can't afford both. And they ALSO have emptied their 401(k)s, borrowed from family members, and sold their stuff on Craigslist to pay for a doctor's visit. Yet still they lend.

The "US" and "THEM" are the same people.

To put this in KIVA-speak, this would be like an entrepreneurial storekeeper in Cameroon making a microloan to an entrepreneurial storekeeper in Mexico using KIVA as the platform. Indeed, this may already be happening on KIVA (or may be in their future plans), but I'd venture to say that it is not commonplace.

On Lend4Health, this is happening, and it's happening every day. There have been several instances where a family that is seeking a loan, or is in the process of paying back a loan, makes a loan to another family on the site. When I see these loans come in, my immediate reaction used to be "Don't do that! You should put that money toward your own child, or to pay back your own loan!" In most cases, these loans are very small, like $5. And what I have come to realize is that these families are using their dollars not really as a monetary currency but as social and emotional currency: "I've been there. I know what you're going through. I support you." Indeed, the reaction I hear most often from families whose loans have been funded is NOT "Yippie! Now we can go buy the stuff we need," but tears of "Oh my gosh, I can't believe these people care about us!"

This phenomenon -- of people in need lending to people in need -- has been so interesting to me, so I asked a few of my frequent lenders (all of whom are also parents of children with autism and are spending big bucks to help treat them), "Why do you lend on Lend4Health?" Here are some of their wonderful replies:

-- My husband and I do not have much money. Every spare cent we have goes towards Charlie's treatment; but knowing I can make a small $10 loan and be a part of changing the life of a child and his family, well... that's really it isn't it? Such a small investment for such a GREAT return! :-) [Jeanne]

-- Bottom line is that it makes me feel really really good to know that I can help a family do what I am doing myself
for my sons and seeing so much success with. I want every child to be able to get this treatment - I believe so strongly in it. [Lisa]

-- Other moms have been so generous with their knowledge and taking the time to answer my 4 million questions - it's like our own community. Knowing that there were parents out there who couldn't afford a test, a supplement, the diet - why not lend someone $5, $10? Every child deserves a fighting chance and every parent should have a support system. Lend4Health provides both of those things. [Dana]

-- Two sentences: "Paying it forward" and "Putting into the Universe what you want to get out of it." [Petra, who actually made her 3rd loan to the same child while I was writing this post!]

So, essentially what I may have unknowingly created is a new angle on the "patient community." There are many forums, support groups, and websites out there where people with the same illnesses, diseases, and disorders get together to give references and referrals, offer advice and sympathy, and swap stories, but from what I have seen and heard, Lend4Health might be the first place where they are also swapping money.

My question right now is, "What do I do with that?" I see two possible paths moving forward. One, I could leverage the community aspect of this and really focus on making it a niche community, where the lenders and borrowers continue to be the same people. Or, two, I could try to make the site a place that attracts the "stranger-THEM," the people who are healthy, whose kids are healthy, and who might lend to another family kind of in celebration of the fact that THEY are not THEM (or as an offering to the gods that THEY do not become THEM).

I think what I most likely will do is to combine the two of these. I want to stay very true to the roots of this, and make a diligent effort to make sure Lend4Health remains a "space" that offers a sense of community and support for those who are going through (or have gone through) the shared experience of ill health. But I also want to try to make Lend4Health a place where the casual visitor would feel a desire to reach out and help, even if they are not personally familiar with the other family's health issues.

Indeed, I think the work that Social Actions is doing in bringing these various "action opportunities" to new places on the web will help with this second goal. For example, Joe Solomon's (@engagejoe) Change the Web contest may mean that the "random person " paying his bills online could be made aware of another family's needs and, with a couple of clicks, could make a small loan to them without ever having to have heard of "Lend4Health" or even autism.

One important note on all this is that, although Lend4Health is currently focused solely on the issue of autism treatment, my vision for the future is that other health-related needs could use the platform. (This is why I kept the name open to "health" and didn't specify "Lend4Autism" for example.) And, if this expansion occurs and takes hold, it is very possible that there will no longer be an "US" and a "THEM" because, unfortunately, most everybody on the planet is either personally touched by ill-health at one time or another or is familiar and aware because a friend or family members has been affected. If you can imagine a future Lend4Health dealing in not just autism but also cancer, AIDS, schizophrenia, MS, alzheimers, and maybe even preventative or health-promoting things like birth doulas, massage therapy, or Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), then you can quickly see how we all become part of the larger "US," offering support to each other by swapping money.

DIFFERENCE #2: It Ain't Sexy

I've been thinking a lot about how to write this next bit because I'm afraid it will come across as being rude, un-PC, or just in general wrong. But I will try anyway because I think it's an important point.

On KIVA, a lender is typically making a small loan to a place he or she has never been to before and will probably never visit. While I'm sure there are many, many KIVA lenders who specifically select a certain region or country of the world because they have traveled or lived there, I'm assuming that (with such a large pool of lenders), this is not true of most. And I think that from this, the lender gets a little thrill. It's "cool" to look at the pictures of "exotic people in foreign lands" and to know that you are impacting that place, that modest home, that woman bending over her chickens and cook stove.

It's kind of a "sexy" thing to be a part of. It's kind of "cool" and it's kind of "thrilling" to feel like you are inserting yourself into a foreign environment. You may not be able to point to the country on a map, and you may not know the name of the currency they use or the language they speak, by gosh darnit, you're a part of it now. And it makes you feel kind of cool.

And while certainly global poverty is not "sexy," I'd venture to say that global entrepreneurship might be. It's great to see a woman expanding her weaving business, or a father of five branching out to add a new crop this year to try to get that last kid to school. The perserverance and the ingenuity and the hard work is fabulous. We like that. We root them on. We give them a loan.

Now, with Lend4Health, what are we dealing with? A family basically like your family except they have a child with autism. They could very easily live down the street from you. They have a car, a TV, and they go to the local grocery store to buy toilet paper. And, not only is the environment they live in not "exotic," their loan request is also not "cool." They are not asking for a $300 loan to start or expand a business. No, they are asking for a $300 loan to get a stool test done on their child's poop to look for parasites and bacteria overgrowth. Nope, there's nothing really "sexy" about that, anyway you put it. It is what it is. It's a stool test. BUT! The results that come from that test will help the family know what they need to do next to help their child feel better. And while that's not really "sexy," it might just be "thrilling" in a way.

Again, I don't want this to sound mean or bad or un-PC in anyway. I am not putting down lenders on KIVA who feel "cool" by making a loan to somebody in a country they'll never go to (indeed, that's what I did myself). And I'm not making light of families who need a stool test. (in fact I am the same person who created the Poop Blog, enter at your own risk!)

But I guess my point is that I have discovered over the past five months that KIVA has a certain "sexy" factor to it that Lend4Health doesn't, and might not ever have. This could change a bit if the site catches on in other countries, but there still is that factor that illness and ill-health are kind of "downers," and there will be people who don't want to make a loan because it depresses them to visit the site and think of what these families are going through.

I think it also means that it's important for causes like ours to focus on the positive, the hope, and the light at the end of the tunnel. KIVA does this well -- while they tell you what circumstances the entrepreneur is in, they don't dwell on it. They don't give you a sob story. Instead, they focus on what this person is doing to create change, to fight, to survive, and to grow. Epic Change does this well too. I love @StaceyMonk's holiday cards because they show you happiness and hope and celebration as opposed to the hardship, the poverty, and the ill-health that is very real in many of these children's lives. In a practical sense for Lend4Health, this means that the stories being told need to let potential lenders know that this family is struggling with some pretty intense issues, but that there is a beautiful child (or adult) at the center of that struggle, and that the loan has the potential to help get them further down the road toward a fuller health.

DIFFERENCE #3: "Profit"

This is not necessarily something I failed to consider when I started Lend4Health, but since I started Lend4Health with very minimal thought (I will admit this openly, I just thought I had a good idea and went with it), this is an issue that I have only recently started to consider with any depth.

KIVA, and indeed microfinance itself, is brilliant because the recipient of the funds can pay back the loan using the profit they have made by expanding or improving or building their business. It's a very beautiful thing.

But where's the profit on Lend4Health?

I'll give you a hint . . . there is none. It's basically a consumer loan. You make a loan for a stool test. The stool test is purchased and taken. The results come back. No money is made. The family pays back the debt using the money they already DIDN'T have in the first place.

So that sounds kind of like the crappiest model ever, right? Yeah, I hear you. I struggle with this one a lot.

But, since I am a big-picture thinking kind of gal, let me bring you along on a little ride. Let's call it "a new way to think about profit."

Let's say that the family with the stool test is currently shelling out $30,000 a year (out of pocket, since insurance doesn't cover this) for medications, specialist visits, obscure tests, and therapies. Let's say that the formerly happy, dual-income parents have lost an entire income because one parent has to stay home to oversee, implement, and transport to and from the medical routines, the intensive therapy, and the special schools. And let's say that the tax-paying community is contributing money as well to make sure that this child has a one-on-one aide at school and that his/her Individual Education Plan is carried out. Now maybe the stress of the sleepless nights, the temper tantrums, the therapists coming and going, and the wiped out savings get to be too much for this formerly happy couple. Let's say they get a divorce (I've heard statistics of 80-85% of married couples with special needs kids get divorced.) Now the child is growing up in a single-parent household or being shuttled between the two. Now let's say that child grows up, and he/she is now 25. A steady job? Maybe not. A taxpayer? Maybe not. A social security payment? Probably.

Now WHAT IF [insert sparkly change-making microloan here] that stool test identified something -- like a parasite or bacterial overgrowth -- that could be treated. And once it was treated, the child had less tantrums because they were a little less in pain. And now the family gets a little spark of hope, and they move onto another treatment that has similar benefits. And now let's say they keep going until their child is able to attend a mainstream classroom and is excelling without an aide. And now they have been able to solve some of the medical issues to the point that the medication routine is much less intense, the therapies are down to once a week, and the special school is no longer needed. Le'ts say the one parent can go back to work part-time, and the outlay of funds is down to $10,000 a year. (Oh, and maybe the parents aren't quite so stressed anymore and their marriage is back on track.) At 25, the child can hold a job (maybe even be an entrepreneur), get married, pay taxes.

The avoidance of future expenditures is the profit.

So the Lend4Health loan is not repaid with "profit," but the loan will hopefully beget a "profit" of another flavor -- the non-monetary profit of health. And, indeed, isn't good health necessary before one can go out and pursue a monetary profit?

[SIDEBAR: Now, with all this talk of autism treatment and recovery, let me just mention that there is a very large debate within the autism community of whether or not autism is treatable, and whether or not these treatments even work. Of course, I believe they do which is why I started the site, and enough other people believe they do to be willing to part with over $10,000 in loans over the past five months. But if the autism issue is hard for you to swallow, then think about another health issue you may have been faced with. Did you have a relative who got treatment and is now a cancer survivor? Could this same thought process be used in that scenario?]

I am not an economist, and I have not studied microfinance. I have questioned whether a Lend4Health loan can even be called a "microloan" and whether the concept can be called "microfinance" because there is this lack of "profit" (and, oh yeah, the loans on Lend4Health are interest-free too, so the "business model" iteself is not sustainable). I often wonder if I am just being incredibly naive and foolish, or if I have perhaps created a new notion of what microfinance is or could be? I will leave that for the discussion that may follow in the comments section.... :)

In conclusion, KIVA rocks. It will always be known and remembered as the site that changed the world. Five months ago, I thought I was copying the KIVA model for a new goal. I read this post on Social Edge and I wonder if I am a just a silly KIVA wanna-be. But I hope through this (way too long) post, I have perhaps provided some new insight on what KIVA is, why it's successful, and how using the KIVA model for other purposes may be brilliant or may just be a big flop. I welcome your thoughts . . . . . .

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Tags: autism, entrepreneur, health, kiva, lend4health, microfinance, microlending, microloan, poverty, social

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