By Gina Harman, CEO, Accion in the U.S., and Liz Urrutia, CEO, Opportunity International
The field of microfinance arose to address a pressing problem in emerging markets: Billions of people around the globe were shut out of, or poorly served by, the financial sector. But while microfinance institutions grew rapidly around the globe, so too did economic inequality in developed countries. It was within this context that organizations like Accion in the U.S. and Opportunity Fund adapted the microlending model to the United States more than two decades ago, expanding access to economic opportunity for entrepreneurs who lacked the financing and resources they needed to start or grow their businesses. In the ensuing years, the mission-based lending industry has continued to expand its services across the country – even in times of economic recession.
From Financial Inclusion to Financial Health
In the early days, progress toward our mission could be measured by portfolio numbers, such as number of loans disbursed and amount of capital deployed, as well as by evaluating how many of our clients were from traditionally underserved populations, such as people of color, women and low- to moderate-income individuals. However, we also understood that gaining access to financial services is only meaningful if that access places an individual on a path to greater financial stability and improved quality of life. In short, financial inclusion does not necessarily enable financial health.
Over time, with support from the Aspen Institute’s EntrepreneurTracker initiative, our organizations have been able to evaluate borrower outcomes such as business survival, revenue growth and job creation in the years following loan disbursement. Still, we knew that these numbers alone didn’t tell the full story. That’s why we kicked off a multi-year, mixed methods study in 2015 to more fully understand the impact of our lending and advising services over a longer time horizon. This research, conducted by Harder+Company Community Research, was made possible through lead funding from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation and JPMorgan Chase & Co., with additional support from S&P Global.
How Are Our Clients Faring?
The results of this research revealed that, by and large, the entrepreneurs we serve are thriving, even two to three years after receiving their loan. Most businesses in the study increased sales (60 percent) and profit (57 percent). Forty percent of borrowers added employees during the study period, and entrepreneurs with employees significantly increased benefits provided to those employees. What’s more, the majority of study participants specifically attributed progress toward their business and personal goals to the services they received from Accion or Opportunity Fund.
This study also provided unprecedented insight into the emotional benefits of mission-based small business lending. At the end of the study, 63 percent of participants expressed that support from their lender had “a lot” of positive impact on their confidence. In follow-up interviews, entrepreneurs discussed the demoralizing effect of previous loan rejections, sharing that the approval from Accion or Opportunity Fund was a sign that someone believed in them. As one participant put it: “The biggest thing has been the confidence that I’ve gained in myself. I’m really proud of it.”
But the report also highlighted some ongoing challenges – among them, the fact that financial health remains a key need among the business owners we serve. For example, the majority of clients surveyed at the end of the study had not taken steps to prepare for a financial emergency (55 percent) and found finances to be a significant source of stress (58 percent). This was a statistically significant improvement from the beginning of the study, when only 36 percent of participants had prepared for a financial emergency and 71 percent reported significant anxiety about finances. Nevertheless, though these findings indicate that our clients are on the path to greater financial stability, they remain vulnerable to financial shocks.
Defining Success on Entrepreneurs’ Terms
The multifaceted nature of the study findings illuminates the limitations of a “one-size-fits-all” definition of impact. For instance, as the mission-based lending field moves beyond measures of inclusion to focus on borrower outcomes, traditional metrics like revenue growth and job creation don’t necessarily align with entrepreneurs’ own definitions of success. That’s why the research employed a technique called cluster analysis, which revealed five distinct typologies of entrepreneurs, each with unique goals, challenges and successes.
For example, the Focused and Growing group (44 percent of the sample) sought to grow, and succeeded. By the end of the study, they had all moved into their businesses full-time, had successfully used their loans to expand their businesses, and were experiencing increased sales and profits.
In comparison, the Stable and Strategic group (12 percent of the sample) juggled multiple sources of income while carefully planning for long-term, safe business growth. They increased their financial stability over the study period, and they also reported increased quality of life.
For the Off Balance and Seasonal group (9 percent of the sample), unexpected hardships and seasonal cash flow meant that their main priority was keeping their business afloat. In follow-up interviews they expressed an appreciation for the tailored support and guidance they received from their lender to help them weather financial challenges.
Borrowers in the Retrenching group (19 percent of the sample), were most likely to have used their loan to start a new business. While most experienced business growth over the study period, very few reported taking a salary from the business. Nevertheless, they remained confident about their financial future at the end of the study and reported a significant decrease in financial stress.
For those in the Slowly Growing and Optimistic group (17 percent of the sample), key goals for business ownership included fulfilling a specific dream or becoming their own boss. Although the majority experienced increases in sales, most were not able to increase savings, and some had even drained their savings over the study period. Many of these entrepreneurs operated highly specialized businesses with unpredictable cash flows, and were looking for opportunities to diversify their offerings.
With the completion of this research, we have gained invaluable insights into the impact of our services – as defined by our clients. As our organizations look to expand access to high quality, transparent and affordable financial services, it will be crucial to continue to refine our definitions of success, and to iterate and design new products and services to best align with their needs.