IT innovations help Kiva expand microfinance mission

IT innovations help Kiva expand microfinance mission

Doing much more with much less is business as usual for Kiva, its entrepreneurs and its IT team.

Flannery says he knew that traditional mailings and solicitations wouldn't work for Kiva -- they would be too time-consuming, overhead-intensive and expensive -- so he focused on online operations. "What we've found from the beginning is that it worked fine, and it was cheap," he says.

Kiva raised US$1.9 million in loan funds in 2006, its first full year of operation, and ran on a budget of US$175,000 that year.

Like any start-up, Kiva had to grow its IT operations as the business expanded. But it had unique challenges: It had to scale its own IT infrastructure and do the same for its partner MFIs, most of which operate in areas with limited infrastructure and support services.

Yet, as a nonprofit, Kiva couldn't access the kind of capital, such as venture funding, that often finances early-stage companies. Its capital came from donations and grants.

Flannery says that has required some sacrifices. "If we were a VC-backed company, we'd have an engineering team of 25 by now," he says. Without that level of funding and manpower, Kiva has to be more careful about prioritizing its IT needs, and it adds only a few new features each year as resources allow.

"I'm not complaining; we've done a lot. And we've been able to do a lot because of the great efficiencies created by technology," Flannery says.

Kiva has managed to grow without a big infusion of cash. It now has 35 staff members, nine of whom are IT workers. Its annual budget for 2008 was US$4.1 million, which supported operations that sent US$36 million in loans to poor entrepreneurs around the globe.

Its technology spending has gone from about US$18,000 in 2006 (when two employees earned a combined total of just US$14,200) to US$937,000 in 2008 (of which US$776,000 paid the salaries of eight IT workers).

Even with last year's IT budget of just US$161,000 after salaries, Kiva managed to implement an array of tech-driven features that enable partner MFIs, entrepreneurs and investors to access and share information more quickly.

Woodward, who joined Kiva's staff in September but has been a friend to the team and a volunteer from the start, cites the organization's willingness to use existing innovations for its success.

For example, Kiva uses PayPal to move money around, and that has proved to be "even easier than credit cards" and cost-effective, he says. (PayPal Inc. donates its services, allowing Kiva to send 100 percent of the money pledged for loans to the entrepreneurs, according to Kiva officials.)

Moreover, the Internet makes it possible for Kiva to find and organize volunteer translators and editors. And social networking sites have enabled the organization to build recognition without massive investments in IT infrastructure or marketing, Woodward says.

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