Spotlight

Grameen America Launches New Impact Investing Fund

Anne Field | February 6, 2018

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Microlender Grameen America is upping its game in impact investing.

The U.S.-based microfinance organization marked its ten-year anniversary last month by announcing a new $11 million impact investing fund, the first in what it said will be a series of new funds. Called the Social Business Fund, it’s aimed at providing additional money to women entrepreneurs who have already worked with Grameen and expanding to more U.S. regions.

“This fund will help us move into new geographies, help our existing members build bigger businesses and help us become really national in scope,” says Grameen America President and CEO Andrea Jung (pictured above with borrowers).

The U.S. nonprofit has mostly been funded by traditional philanthropy and concessionary capital from foundations, charities, individuals and commercial lenders.  The interest-paying impact fund gives Grameen’s donors an additional way—and incentive—to fund its ambitious growth plans. Grameen America hopes to achieve 100% sustainability and disburse up to $2 billion in loans to low-income women within the next five years.

From catering to cleaning

Launched a decade ago in the melting pot borough of Queens, New York, Grameen America is an offshoot of the venerable Bangladesh-based Grameen Bank, founded in the 1970s by Pulitzer-prize winner Muhammad Yunus to provide microloans to women living in poverty.

Now in 20 locations in 13 cities, the U.S. nonprofit has lent about $820 million to date to 98,000 low-income women operating businesses ranging from catering and restaurants to beauty salons and cleaning services. Grameen’s unique approach, which requires borrowers to form supportive peer groups that meet weekly, has contributed to an impressive 99% repayment rate.

Grameen America impact fund
Muhammad Yunus (WikiMedia Commons)

The Social Business Fund is structured with nominal annual interest payments, a 20% first loss guarantee (backed by foundations) and return of principal to investors after five years. Investors include both current and new participants, mainly family offices and community foundations.

Every $1 million invested in the fund, says Jung, will yield $12 million in microloans in five years. “We have a track record of repayment. We are paid interest on that. Then we invest it again into the next group of women and their families,” she says.

The organization provides loans, savings programs and financial education to its members. The first loan can be no more than $1,500; the average amount of all loans is about $2,500.
In addition, Grameen helps borrowers build a credit score. “A member who comes in with no credit score or a poor one can have a score of 640-plus in a short time,” says Jung.

If women pay back their microloan in six months, they qualify for another loan. Unlike the Bangladeshi mother ship, Grameen America isn’t a bank, so it can’t take deposits from members. Instead, partners like Wells Fargo and Citibank offer no-fee first time bank accounts.

Anne Field is a New York-based journalist who writes about social enterprise and impact investing. A version of this article originally appeared on her Not Only For Profit blog on Forbes.com.

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