Microlending: Interest is growing. Does it work?

I mentioned here a couple weeks ago that I was hearing more about interest in microlending in Minnesota and I’ve been sorting through some data to get a better handle on it. There’s no question interest is rising in using small loans as a tool to get entrepreneurs off the ground.

The Aspen Institute for almost two decades has been surveying organizations giving the small loans, and when it conducted another round of research last summer and fall, it found more such organizations than ever.

It compiled the results in a report you can read here. There’s even a searchable database here, which identifies 10 organizations in Minnesota that responded to an Aspen survey about their 2008 lending activities.

The biggest one, with 47 microloans disbursed for a total of $550,000, is the Northeast Entrepreneur Fund, which serves 11 counties in northeastern Minnesota and northwestern Wisconsin.

In all, the Aspen study identified well over 100 microloans given out by Minnesota organizations in 2008, totalling more than $1.5 million. A lot of the activity researchers found was outstate — other active microlenders were non-profits like the Southwest Initiative Foundation in Hutchinson and the Northwest Minnesota Foundation in Bemidji.

Given those numbers, it’s clear we’re not talking about the kind of 22-cent or $5 microloans that gave the field great visibility and one of its promulgators, Muhammad Yunus, a Nobel Prize a few years ago. The Grameen Bank in Bangladesh gave very tiny loans to people, mostly women, to let them invest in small-scale operations in their homes in an effort to alleviate their poverty.

In the American microenterprise world, the definition of a microloan can go as high as $35,000, but the targets still tend to be low-income, inexperienced people unable to get credit through normal banks.

Mary Mathews, president and CEO of the Northeast Entrepreneur Fund in Duluth, says “demand is through the roof.” The number of loans her organization provided rose to 65 last year, she said. This year demand is still up.

A big reason is that bank credit is hard to come by, and microlenders fill a gap. It’s hard to know when bank credit might ease, but the state and non-profits are increasingly exploring microlending.

The Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development got approval in the legislative session just ended for a plan to make $500,000 in federal money available to outstate Minnesota communities. The communities need to contract with non-profits to give small entrepreneurs technical assistance. DEED’s Bart Bevins says the department has been hearing from organizations who say there’s a need and “we’ll test that. We’re going to find out if there’s interest.”

At the same time, two regional development commissions serving 10 counties in central Minnesota are conducting a feasibility study and expect next month to roll out a plan that would address any microloan needs they identify.

There’s been debate over the effectiveness of microloans in alleviating poverty in Asia and Africa and whether it feels right as for-profit investment operations get into the business. And, as microloan providers will tell you, the need is great for, not just money, but technical assistance to help new entrepreneurs.

(For an interesting look at what those microloans do and don’t accomplish, check the May 17 New Yorker profile of Esther Duflo, a young economist who conducts research into Third-World development ideas.)

Are these efforts working in Minnesota? Are small new concerns actually getting going? Mathews says 85 percent of the small businesses her organization helps are still in business two years later. What other evidence is there? What are the right ways to measure success?

  • The Entrepreneur Fund continues to look for new ways to support micro, small, emerging businesses in northeastern Minnesota and northwestern Wisconsin. Tonight, Dan Neff, a glass artist from Duluth, will be featured on the new WDSE-TV show, “The Playlist”. Dan is a member of our C.Re.A.T.E. (Community Resources for Artists to Entrepreneurs) group and participated in our (March 2010) Northland Flavor wholesale market. Dan is an artist who is now also an entrepreneur.

  • Bill Hansen

    A key factor to the success of microloans is the training and support that occurs when the lender is being qualified and during the duration of the loan. Providing the support is expensive, but produces strong entrepreneurs who continue to contribute to the general economy over the long haul.

    It is also very important to create an entrepreneurial culture, so people believe they can succeed in business. With the good work of the Northeast Entrepreneur fund and others, it should be no surprise that the Duluth-Superior Metropolitan Area gained 2,553 jobs in April, or 2%, the strongest April since 1999.

  • Seems like creating an entrepreneurial culture is the Holy Grail here. What makes that happen — a few courageous and/or lucky individuals? low taxes? a source of financing with the right level of training and risk tolerance?

    Has anybody figured out how to measure that and bottle it? I have to mention again the New Yorker piece on Esther Duflo, the MIT economist who thinks it’s possible and necessary to measure social economic development ideas.