The Business of Giving
Exploring philanthropy, non-profits and socially motivated business, from the Gates Foundation to your donation. A fresh look at the economy of good intentions.
March 5, 2009 8:23 AM
Posted by Kristi Heim
Ryan Calkins was driving home from work one day when he heard a familiar voice on the radio -- his old friend Matt Flannery talking about a new non-profit he started called Kiva. The two Northwest natives met as teenagers at a summer camp in Canada.
Calkins, now 32, loved the idea of a Web site that provided a simple way for people here to help people in developing countries by funding their businesses -- loaning them small amounts of money interest-free over the Internet, then tracking their progress.
Calkins wanted to support Kiva and the burgeoning microfinance industry in Seattle, which has grown to at least 20 organizations, including Global Partnerships, Unitus, Washington CASH and others. In late 2007, he and a few friends created Seattle Microfinance or SeaMo as a kind of business chamber where people interested in the topic could meet and collaborate.
Seattle Microfinance, The group has 350 subscribers to its Web site and many others on its event invitation list. Most members are in their mid to late 20s, and Calkins described them as young professionals who work hard but realize how fortunate they are compared to the rest of the world.
"They have the sense they came by success because of opportunities they had," he said. "They won the birth lottery by being born in United States. They like the idea of giving back in a way that expands opportunities for others."
SeaMo's signature event, "Microfinance and Microbrews," packs Seattle bars with dozens of enthusiastic participants. The events feature a speaker from a local organization engaged in financial services for the poor. This month, SeaMo is hosting Flannery at Town Hall.
"Generally speaking I believe there's a Seattle ethos of this sort of we have an obligation to do good while were doing well," Calkins said.
But why does microfinance attract so much interest?
It appeals to people who aren't necessarily into the idea of charity, Calkins says. "A donation or loan that helps someone sustain themselves appeals to folks frustrated with the sort of handout philanthropy," he said. "Microfinance is the embodiment of the fishing metaphor [teaching to fish rather than giving out fish]."
Calkins said his own interest increased as he gained more experience as a small business owner. He is president of Statements Tile, a business his grandfather started and his dad continued. Calkins took over the Georgetown company when his dad retired last year.
He lived in Nicaragua and Columbia while working with the group Witness for Peace and returned to the region more recently with Global Partnerships.
It was striking while talking with with entrepreneurs in Nicaragua how much the conversations about business sounded like the ones he has in Seattle, he said.
"We had many of the same concerns -- I need line of credit to buy inventory," Calkins said. "How do you find good help? She may be sitting on $10,000 in inventory and I'm sitting on a few million, but business people speak the same language universally."