Rotary Club of Princeton, NJ USA

Post Office Box 402
Princeton, New Jersey 08542-0402 USA

Microfinance and the Club
A Venture with the Isles Organization

By Jack Taylor

Background
Based on the success of Grameen Bank in Bangladesh, and the award of the Nobel Peace Prize to its founder Mohammad Yunus, making small business loans averaging around $100 each to small groups of essentially women has flourished in the developing world as a tool for reducing poverty. It is reported that loans outstanding worldwide may exceed $20 Billion today, with repayment rates in excess of 95%. Success in the US has however been elusive, and for reasons not entirely clear. Although the concept itself would seem as relevant here as anywhere else, adjusted for cultural, social differences and stage of development, it has not been as effective a tool here as elsewhere in the world. But now, ISLES, the Trenton-based award winning community development organization founded in 1981 by Princeton University students and faculty seeks to change that in our area. And Princeton Rotary hopes to help it do so in Greater Princeton.

Isles – ‘Build Your Own Business’ program
In order to foster self-employment among the poor, people with disabilities, immigrants, refugees, women, ex refugees, and non-English speakers, ISLES launched its own micro-finance initiative in Trenton in 2007, under the leadership of Peter Rose, Vice President. ISLES offers a comprehensive 10 week training program “Build Your Own Business” to its target market for from $30-175 each in order to develop the skills to set up, manage and grow microbusiness. When the carefully selected candidates have completed the course, they are organized into a certified business group, meeting every two weeks as a support group. Such groups consider requests for unsecured loans of $500-5,000 from individual members, and as a peer group, decide whether not to approve the loan. Once such a loan has been made by ISLES, the group is encouraged to stay involved, and to support the borrower, understanding that the debt capacity of the group and its individual members is a function of each individual member’s track record.

Ongoing Support to Graduates
One on one business counseling is also available through ISLES. Access to its volunteer business network is afforded. Borrowers may participate in business development workshops. And, most important of all, as a business matures, and requires capital, loans up to $15,000 may be extended to the business under “Business Bootstrap”, ISLES’ direct loan program. Thus far, 149 have participated in training, 159 in counseling, and 220 in workshops, resulting in 32 new businesses being started in the area.

Our Club & Isles
What ISLES is planning to do now is expand the program to the Princeton Area, and with help from Princeton Rotary. In this spirit, and working in partnership with Peter Rose from the outset, the Board has recommended that our Club Foundation allocate up to $2,500 to fund the training program, that Rotarians assist in such courses, and that we be available to provide advice and counsel to the resulting businesses. From the Board’s perspective, such a grass roots effort will give the Club a much better sense of the needs of the Community in Greater Princeton, is an initiative which plays to our strengths as a Club and as individual Rotarians, and could, if successful, have longer term implications to the Club and our image in the Community.

Rotary team
Among many Rotarians who have participated actively in the initial consideration, discussion and development of the concept are Rob Hearne, Shawki Salem, Len Gustafsson, John Powell, Ted Deutsch, Greg Petroff, Dewey Clark and Jack Taylor who was privileged to be among the initial funders of the Grameen Bank while at the Asian Development Bank. Throughout the year, speakers will be arranged to talk to us about ISLES, microfinance worldwide and our progress with the ISLES partnership in training, counseling and advisory services.