Program Profile: Lend for America

Lend For America takes students to frontlines of economic recession

Every student has reason to give back to his or her college community – it’s the place where minds are opened and voices are found. But few students go as far as to take matters into their own hands and work on the root of any community’s issues: the economy.

While the country faced an economic recession in the late 2000s, many low-income individuals began operating side businesses to make extra money. A small loan or even a point of contact with a nonprofit organization could change the lives of these individuals threatened by homelessness.

Lend For America, a summer internship program launching in 2012 by the Campus Microfinance Alliance, will teach undergraduate students about microlending by setting them up to work for a campus microfinance institution, or MFI. The interns will then have the opportunity to build their own campus MFI once they return home.

“It provides an opportunity to stand on the front lines of the economic recession and see first-hand what’s going on in America’s communities,” said Vanessa Carter, director of the alliance and 2008 graduate of Claremont McKenna College.

Founded in 2009, the Campus Microfinance Alliance began as a group of students interested in the national movement toward microlending. Brought together by the Aspen Institute’s FIELD project, these students formed the alliance in an effort to share physical and intellectual resources. There were four microfinance groups at this initial conference, and now there are 12.

Last summer, the alliance helped fund student internships at professional MFIs, but this year it is taking a more personal approach by sending interns to campus MFIs that are run primarily by student volunteers.

Students chosen to participate in Lend for America will work at one of three campus MFIs: the Community Empowerment Fund (CEF) in Chapel Hill, N.C.; The Intersect Fund in New Brunswick, N.J.; and Capital Good Fund in Providence, R.I.

“These are the most established groups,” Carter said. “They’ve been around for the longest, and they have the capacity and experience to impart on the new student leaders.”

Although part of the same alliance, each campus MFI serves a community that has unique challenges.

For example, student leaders from The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill met with men in the local homeless shelter to discuss what systems were missing in the area. The feedback they received was that more than credit, there was a demand for savings, connection to existing support from the community, and financial education.

This spawned the creation of CEF, which focuses primarily on helping homeless or near-homeless individuals earn savings rather than loans.

“They have strong relationships with their clients,” Carter said.

In fact, CEF program coordinator Maggie West said they call their clients “members,” and there are about 85 active members in the community.

“We work with our members to find part-time or full-time jobs, move out of unemployment, and out of shelters and homelessness,” West said. “We have a dual mission. We see to developing students and leaders alongside empowering our members to achieve their goals, and those two missions promoting each other for longer-term change.”

West, who graduated from UNC in 2010 with a degree in public policy and Latin American studies, said she is looking forward to working with students from other colleges and universities this summer.

“It will be good to get some good external prospective,” West said.

Students that are selected to participate in Lend For America will receive a $2,500 stipend and travel expenses for a two-day training in Washington, D.C. and a site visit to a professional MFI.

Of course, CEF is part of an alliance that would like to grow. Once the student interns complete the nine weeks of Lend For America, they are encouraged to go back to their home college or university and start their own campus MFI. With a start-up phase in mind, the alliance will provide support including a site visit, resource material, and an invitation to an alumni conference in the fall.

Students who are interested to apply to Lend For America can apply at lendforamerica.org before one of two dates – Jan. 31 for early selection, and Feb. 28 for regular selection. There will be two rounds of interviews, and there are about five spots available.

When applying, students can state their preference of campus MFIs, but they will be working toward a common goal.

“We have a much larger vision of equality and economic justice that’s relevant to our work,” West said. “I’m always reminded of that when I talk to members of the other groups.”

Learn more about Lend for America