Making an Impact with International Volunteering: An Interview with the Kiva Fellows Program

Making an impact and finding your purpose – these are two mantras I hear frequently when speaking at travel events or talking with future travelers about their big trip. In addition to seeing the world, mid-career professionals want to put their hard-earned skills to good use during their months or years abroad.

A lot of these travelers want to make sure that time away from home is a worthwhile investment, one that has impact and meaning, where they can also use their professional skills along the way. International volunteering is a popular option, but these travelers are not looking to spend a week building houses or volunteer for a day or two in an orphanage. They want to make a longer lasting, positive contribution to the communities they serve.

I recently talked with Shana Soltani, Manager of the Kiva Fellows Program (KFP) at the Kiva organization. You may have heard of Kiva – they are a microfinance organization that allows people to lend money to business owners around the world for their own small businesses. Personally, I’ve been a lender for several years and think microfinance is revolutionary. I was thrilled to find out that the Kiva organization offers the Kiva Fellows Program – an unpaid volunteer program for professionals to go to 80+ countries that Kiva serves and work in the field with loan officers and borrowers. It seems like a perfect fit for the Take Your Big Trip audience.

Can tell me a bit how the Kiva Fellows Program works and what makes it different from other international volunteer organizations?

Kiva training

Kiva Training in San Francisco. Photo provided by Shana.

The Kiva Fellows Program is an opportunity for skilled volunteers to spend a minimum of four months in the field in support of Kiva’s mission. The program has changed over the past few years and it is constantly evolving

The main role of the volunteer is training and capacity building with the lending partners. We have over 200 field partners in over 80 countries. Kiva is providing capital at 0% interest to these partners using funds crowdsourced on the Kiva website.

The Fellow trains the field partner on Kiva processes and tools. For example, they train loan officers on collecting borrower information and field partners on getting a quality photo for the Kiva web site. It seems basic, but a lot of staff in field may not have opportunities to use a digital camera or they do not have an understanding of what makes a good picture on a profile (i.e. smile and at place of work). Fellows make that connection and it makes a difference for overall Kiva program.

Fellows who have finance and accounting background can help the field staff on their financial models and Excel spreadsheets. Even if it’s just shortcuts, there are huge efficiencies.

The main focus of the program is a short-term volunteer opportunity. We want to make sure the Kiva Fellow participates in business operations, but also focuses on just training and consulting so that when the fellow leaves, the field partner is not stuck without critical skills.

It’s an unpaid position, so those who have the ability to stay longer, they like it because they can be more productive. Four months is long enough to get substantial work done, but there is always more work to be done, and fellows who stay longer can do it.

In addition to training and capacity building, what are the other responsibilities in field for the Kiva Fellow?

  • Marketing and communications: The Fellows collect stories and images that help the tell stories of Kiva’s impact with borrowers. Fellows are well positioned to do this because they are out in the field with the borrowers for a longer time than the field staff is able. Kiva uses the content for marketing campaigns and social media posting. Also, the Fellows write for the Kiva blog. They write about borrowers and the travel experience and the cultural exchange that’s happening. A lot of fellows are motivated to participate in Kiva because of the travel and cultural exchange, so the Kiva blog is the way to showcase that experience.
  • Auditing and oversight role: One of the deliverables is the Borrower Verification, which is Kiva’s way to validate that the borrower information is accurate on the web site. We want to make sure the web site is as accurate and transparent as possible, so the Fellow is given a randomly generated list of 10 borrowers. They have to go out into the field and find these people, which can be an adventure in itself, and verify that the loan purpose is what’s stated on profile. Also, this exercise is an opportunity to get an update on the borrower and how the Kiva loan has impacted their life.

What is the application and placement process like for a Kiva Fellow? Do they get to choose where they want to go?

The placement process that Kiva goes through is like a matchmaking process. Once the Fellow is accepted, they get a spot in the program, but not know where they are going. Fellows indicate a preference on countries, but Kiva likes a high degree of flexibility from an applicant on location. We try to make placements on skills and personality more than a country desire. It makes it difficult if someone’s priority is based on location because we’ve found that the program is more successful and rewarding if the fellow can apply his or her skills.

Kiva is always looking for people with unique language skills; there’s always a demand for Arabic and Russian speakers, and Kiva also has many placements for Spanish and French speakers. We also have a lot of partners who use English as their language of business, especially in Europe, Central Asia, and Africa. Latin America placements require a high level of Spanish because you need to know how to do business in Spanish, not just have conversations. As part of the application process, Kiva has a language assessment with the alum.

There are three Fellow classes each year. They deploy in January, May, and September. Kiva gets about 150-200 applications per cycle. The prospect must interview with an alum of the program and a member of the KFP team during the process. Kiva extends about 20-30 offers and then training happens two weeks before deployment.

Once a Fellow is accepted into the program, there is a required training in San Francisco for one week. It’s an in-depth training of how the organization works and what the opportunities are in the field. We also go over the Kiva tools and processes and how the Field Partners can use them.

What if you have an interest in microfinance, but do not work in finance as a career?

 Kiva has a wide range of career profiles. On average, the applicants and fellows do have finance and consulting backgrounds. Consultants can be better suited because they are expected to go into a situation, assess needs, and, in a short time period, meet specific objectives around improving processes.

However, Kiva Fellows are military, teachers, and even dentists – it runs the gamut. We put a lot of people together from different backgrounds. They just need to be willing to utilize their skills with the Kiva mission. That’s how the matchmaking process goes. For example, maybe a field partner has as strong finance department and they need more help with developing the Kiva relationship or training new staff. Kiva does the best to assess the skills and figuring out where there will be best match.

What are some examples of successful projects that Kiva Fellows have completed?

To answer this question, Shana connected with two returned fellows: Carrie Nguyen and Maryse Gbeassor. I talked with both Carrie and Maryse about their experiences with Kiva.

Carrie Nguyen: 2012 Kiva Fellow in Peru

Carrie wearing a traditional poncho and chuyo hat

Carry in traditional Peruvian garb. Photo provided by Carry.

“Before the Kiva Fellow program, I was a management consultant. I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do as a next step professionally. I was wavering between different types of graduate school. The fellowship gave me clarity. It revealed my passion for Latin American economic development. It also motivated me to apply to graduate school instead of law school, and I decided to do a dual degree – an M.B.A with a Masters in international studies at University of Pennsylvania.

I feel that Kiva helped me figure out what direction I wanted to take and move full time to Latin America and work. As a Kiva Fellow, I worked for Asociación Arariwa in Peru. It was a combination of office and fieldwork. The organization had a long-standing relationship with Kiva, but struggled with turnover, training, and efficient processes and with making sure all information was correct with lenders. I developed a training program and tools.

I also did several marketing communication projects. I visited a lot of borrowers and loan officers and attended group loan meetings. I photographed and interviewed the bowers and sent the photos and videos back to Kiva.

After the Fellow program, I returned to same firm. My firm, Oliver Wyman, has a long-standing relationship with Kiva. It sponsors consultants to work with Kiva for 6 months at a time and the company is generous to sponsor part of it. Bain, BCG, Deloitte, Accenture – many all have similar type of programs. This opportunity gave me ability to say to the firm that wanted to work with Latin America in the management consulting. After returning, I also started to work on my graduate school applications as the next step.

The most special part of my experience was seeing a different way of life. The entire experience opened eyes to different lifestyles and economic situations. Everything around me was Peruvian. Most of my friends were Peruvians. I went on business trips with loan officers, talking to all local small business owners. It really made me appreciate a different side of life.

communal bank visit in Sacred Valley

Communal Bank Visit in the Sacred Valley. Photo provided by Carry.

In the U.S., there’s so much attachment to material wealth. We worry so much about social comparisons. But in Peru, there’s not a whole lot to buy or consume. I came to appreciate how well you can live with so few material objects. We asked prospective borrowers and ask – what dream do you have? The answers were most frequently, ‘I want to keep working, I want to put food on the table, and I want to send my kids to school. I just want to keep supporting my family and I just want to have a job.’ It was truly eye opening.”

Maryse Gbeassor: 2013-2014 Kiva Fellow in Senegal, Liberia, and Burkina Faso

Maryse in Sugar cane field in  Burkina

Maryse in Burkina Faso. Photo provided by Maryse.

“I was a Fellow in 2013 for six months and in three countries. I was at The Union of Mutualist Institutions of Savings and Credit in Senegal, BRAC Liberia, in Liberia, and Micro Start in Burkina Faso.

Since college, I’d been at PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) as a consultant in the Financial Advisory Services practice. I’d been there for over 10 years. I knew that I wanted to do something different, but it took a while to figure out what to do. I was involved with other NGOs and lived abroad for few years. Soon after, I fell in love with microfinance.

Someone told me about Kiva and so I went online and became a lender. It was great to be a lender, but I was itching to be on the ground and see how things work. Plus, I thought, maybe that would be the change I was looking. I wanted something where my mind and heart connected. I had a great, well-paying job but I was working like crazy and never had time to relax and enjoy. I wanted to use my skill set and work hard for something I believed in and was passionate about. Also, I needed a break personally.

Kiva gave me that great combination that I was looking for. It’s well known in the finance sector; they work with different partners in different countries; and I could work in an NGO. It was perfect and worked out very nicely. The fellowship really cleared my mind and confirmed that it was the right path. I got back in May 2014, started interviewing in June, and quit my job in July and moved to new job in a non-profit! The Kiva fellowship made the new position an easy sell because I took 6 months off without a salary to do it, so it wasn’t just in my head. I was very engaged in the non-profit world.

In Senegal, I had to travel around to see all the partner’s operations. I helped them out with training and how they communicated with potential Kiva borrowers. I also made borrowers aware of the web site and explained how the Internet works and helps them.

I also helped them out with strategy because I had ideas for new products they could use or take what they’ve thought of and make it a part of the Kiva platform. The development is their responsibility, but I could make them aware of what other Kiva partners were doing in their region. I taught them how to use the Kiva platform more effectively and to reach the lenders.

I would meet with borrowers and loan officers and train them on the Kiva partnership and processes. I would make sure the money got to borrowers and that they used it for what they said they would use it for. I didn’t get stuck with only the finance people though. I talked to people all across the organization.

In Liberia, I audited 10 borrowers and that meant a lot of travel around Greater Monrovia. In Burkina Faso, my role was similar to Senegal, but for a different product line. They are piloting student loans program. It was great to explain borrowing materials to students and talk about their plans for making life better in Burkina.

With Micro Start staff_Burkina

Maryse with Micro Start Staff in Burkina Faso (Photo provided by Maryse)

French is my main language, so I spoke it in country. However, it wasn’t that useful in either Senegal or Burkina, unless I was in the city. In rural areas, I relied on the loan officer or Kiva agent to do the translation. I always traveled with one of them. They are a big plus to getting the most value out of meeting with the borrowers.

My advice for people thinking about Kiva Fellows program? Be sure you really want to do it. It’s really a mind thing. You can be all by yourself for quite some time. You need to allow yourself to get out of your comfort zone and meet people. Take time to build relationships. Allow yourself a week or two and get used to your settings and the country.

Be very open. There will always be times where you are like “What is going on?!” and you have no idea what to do and it’s all OK. Things always work out eventually. Be open and be flexible and make new friends with locals and expats and travel around. When you do the budget for your fellowship, make sure there’s a budget for traveling around. Also, smile a lot! When people see you coming from abroad, you need to have that smile to communicate when there’s no common language.

Travel and enjoy!”

After speaking with Shana and these two returned fellows, I feel that a Kiva Fellows Program would be a great part of a big trip or a gap year travel experience for mid-career professionals who are looking to use their skills and make an impact by volunteering abroad. Carrie and Maryse also found a renewed purpose in their career because of the program, an extra bonus for those looking to reset their lives through travel.

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