Social change work is hard and frustrating and wonderful and terrible; it is also, at times, funny, quirky and just plain fascinating. With this blog we hope to capture all that goes into what we do at Capital Good Fund, and we invite you to join the conversation!

Monday, December 24, 2012

Educational Inequality and Financial Coaching + Schools

In this blog we've already looked at the link between poverty and health and how our Financial Coaching program can help to improve health outcomes for the poor.  Unfortunately, a recent study by the UMass Boston Center for Social Policy only served to reinforce this pernicious paradigm: the study found that the children of low-wage workers are "Far more likely to drop out of school than are higher income youth, are more likely to be among the one in five American teens who are obese, and are far more likely to become parents in their teen years."

On the heels of these sad reports comes an article in the New York times titled 'For Many Poor Students, Lead to College Ends in a Hard Fall.'  Here are some of the more troubling quotes:

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Financial Coaching + Health, Pt. 2: The Plan

Yesterday I talked about why there is a need for a health module within our Financial Coaching program.  Today, I'd like to talk about how we plan on implementing that module and what it will mean for our overall social impact.

First, a little background: when I first started seeing health issues coming up with many of our Coaching clients, I wasn't sure how to handle it.  After all, health can seem tangential to the financial coaching, free tax preparation and small loans that we provide.  What's more, I had no idea how to go about tackling health within our Coaching--I have no background in health and neither do any of my board members or employees.  Still, I've never been one to shy away from a challenging problem, provided that it's worth solving. So I decided to reach out to Partners in Health, one of the best non-profits in the world and whose co-founder, Paul Farmer, is a hero of mine (I highly recommend three of his books: Pathologies of Power: Health, Human Rights and the New War on the Poor; Mountains beyond Mountains; and Haiti After the Earthquake).

Monday, December 10, 2012

Financial Coaching + Health, Pt. 1: The Need

Let's face it, poverty in America is a complex, multifaceted problem: financial services, health, education, housing, jobs, public benefits, environmental degradation--these are all issue areas that play a part in preventing a poverty-free nation.  Given that our mission is to end poverty in the lives of our clients, we are constantly looking at ways of expanding the breadth and depth of our products and services without straying from our core competency of offering financial services to the poor.  

Not long after we launched our one-on-one Financial Coaching program, we began to see that we could leverage the relationship developed between client and coach to identify a wide range of life goals and work together with our clients to achieve them.  It didn't take long to see that health issues were a significant barrier to success: half of bankruptcies are due to medical debt, and many of our clients cite health issues, such as diabetes, hypertension, obesity and anxiety, as significant challenges in their lives.  And when looked at from a macroeconomic point of view, America is facing health crisis; in fact, according to a recent article in the Stanford Social Innovation Review (SSIR),

Today, heart disease, stroke, diabetes, asthma, and other chronic diseases account for about 70% of all deaths in the United States and restrict daily living activities for 25 million people.  They also impose huge costs on families and economy, gobbling up an estimated 75% of the money Americans spend on health care.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Our Strategy For Growth: 4 Competitive Advantages

We find it unfortunate that non-profits tend not to think about competitive advantage as it relates to social impact and growth: far too many social change organizations view competition as something reserved for the unseemly, for-profit world.  Yet it doesn't take long to see that this way of thinking doesn't make sense.  Non-profits like us compete for clients, who have the option of getting their financial needs met by credit card companies, payday lenders, rent-to-own stores, etc.  We also compete for funding and, lastly, for ideas.  Yes, ideas!  After all, lots of people have thoughts on how to tackle poverty (and even more people don't think about it at all), and so we are in a kind of market place where the good we are selling is opportunity and an approach to fostering a more equitable American society and economy, and our customers are policy makers, business leaders and the general public.

So once we start thinking in terms of competitive advantage, the next step is to identify what, exactly, ours is!  I believe that we have four (4) qualities as an organization that will set us apart and propel us to becoming a national organization that makes a significant dent in American poverty.  These traits are: 1) Products and services; 2) Beautiful design; 3) Culture; 4) Data mining.  What follows is a description of what each of these mean, how we will carry them out and why they are so crucial.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Large-Scale Renewable Energy - A Conundrum?

Photo Credits: Jamey Stillings

This photo is of a solar thermal power plant that, once fully operational in 2013, will be able to power 140,000 homes.  Solar thermal plants generate energy from the sun by using thousands of heliostats (basically, curved mirrors) to concentrate sunlight onto a central tower (seen in the center of the circle on the photo) so as to generate steam.  The steam is used to spin a turbine, which generates electricity--all without the use of fossil fuels.  What's more, through the use of molten salt, the heat can be stored and released at night, generating power 24/7.

The problem is that this project, and most large-scale renewable power plants, use a lot of that is often untouched and home to endangered flora and fauna.  Below is a photo of the land on which this power plant was built before work began:

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Malala: A Poem

About a month ago three Taliban hit men shot 15-year-old Pakistani activist Malala Yousafzai in the head on her way to school.  Not only did she survive, but she is expected to fully recover and has already asked for her schoolbooks so that she can continue her studies.  The Taliban, who tried to kill her because of her outspoken support for the education of girls, have vowed to finish the job; undeterred, she has vowed to return to school.  Malala has become an inspiration for millions around the world, and today the United Nations delcared a "global day of action" for her.  We penned the following verses to voice our support for her and for every girl around the world that struggles to receive an education so that she can better her life and make the world more beautiful, just and wonderful.


They board the bus, sound the alarm:
Their terror is but fear
Of a little girl they cannot harm,
Whose valor the world reveres.

The leaf falls, the bullet pierces:
A patch of earth, a patch of sky
Bear witness to her fierce
Refusal to comply.

History has a right side and a wrong:
Righteousness does not reside
In the machinations of the throng...
She is the hero's bride!

O, for all this time we've been led
To believe that good can come from dice,
Even as from her convalescing bed
She quietly reveals our cowardice. 

Now we have no choice
But to give freedom her voice,
For once we take a moral stance
We no longer leave justice to chance.

A Beautiful Thermostat: How Beauty Can Better the World

Source: Cooper Hewitt

Last week, we looked at the link between Joy and Justice, and this week we consider beauty, beautiful design and their connection to a beautiful world.

Here's a simple fact that may be surprising to many: beautiful design is essential to a beautiful world.  Smartphones, tablets, the Internet...all are useful for gaming, keeping us in touch with others, and so on, but they can also be essential tools for bettering the world.  One of the points I most often make is that when Exxon Mobile explores for oil, they use the most advanced imaging technologies operated by the most brilliant geologist in the world, yet when a social entrepreneur seeks to solve a social or environmental problem, she is forced to make due with underpaid and overworked employees and subpar technology.

How, when those of us fighting for social justice are already facing an uphill battle, are we to achieve or goals when we are further handicapped by technological and personnel limitations? Fortunately, good design and the continued advancement of technology can make it easier for us to overcome these challenges. For instance, a recent exhibit, called Design for the Other 90%,  focused on how good design can transform the world for the better--projects included low-cost irrigation pumps, easy-to-use water filtration systems and solar powered street lamps for rural areas.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Joy and Justice - The Sublime Link

If you spend enough time around people that are even remotely interested in social or environmental issues, you are almost certain to sense in them a kind of melancholy tinged with cynicism and frustration.  Of course, this is not surprising, for the vast majority of people have enough difficulty thinking about their own lives--schooling, money, love, friendships, family--let alone tackling larger issues.  And so those that have chosen to take a different path are almost inevitably left fighting an uphill battle.

I want to write this short blog post for the changemakers in this world to say to them that there is a sublime link between joy and justice.  You must love the world to make it better; love humanity to serve it; love nature to protect; love justice to fight for it.  If you bring joy to your work, your employees will feel more motivated, less likely to burn out, and more able to think creatively.  Your joy will squash cynicism and awaken even the most jaded soul.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

The DoubleGreen Loan and Superstorm Sandy

I decided to start Capital Good Fund (CGF) in response to the 2008 financial collapse because I feel that, in the face of calamity, it is far better to take action than to lament.  From day one--indeed, from the time I moved to Providence, RI for a masters program in environmental studies at Brown--my interest has been the intersection of poverty and the environment (my masters thesis deals with this very topic--you can check it out here).  Why?  Because it turns out that the poor bear the brunt of environmental destruction.  Consider this: low-income Americans spend 17% of their income on energy, compared to 4% for the rest of the population.  This makes them far more vulnerable to energy price volatility.  At the same time, low-income families are more likely to live in neighborhoods with poor indoor and outdoor air quality.  What's more, by virtue of more often living in low-lying areas, they are more vulnerable to the effects of climate change (something Hurricane Katrina clearly demonstrated) and less able to evacuate from and rebuild after a storm.

Unfortunately, for the first couple of years as Executive Director of CGF, I've had to focus my efforts on the more immediate challenges of fundraising, building infrastructure, developing policies and procedures, and so on.  In addition, I've had to accept that just tackling poverty is hard enough without incorporating an environmental justice component.  That said, I never gave up on the idea of using equitable financing in order to tackle poverty and redress environmental degradation.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

The Role of Youth in Tackling Poverty

I'm currently in New Brunswick, New Jersey for the 4th annual Lend for America Summit, which is geared towards inspiring and guiding college students from across the country to start and expand organizations that serve America's poor and create economic opportunity for them.  Part of the reason why I am here, giving a talk to dozens of enthusiastic, bright young people, is that we will never solve the endemic problems of poverty, injustice, etc., unless more people graduate college and go into government, social enterprise, or non-profit work.  This is not an opinion, but rather a fact: young people were one of the primary drivers of the civil rights movement, the anti-war movement against Vietnam, and countless other initiatives that fostered a more just society in America.  What's more, youth helped spur the recent Arab Spring, led to the downfall of the Shah of Iran, partook in the Orange Revolution in Ukraine, and so on.  These are just a few examples of the ways in which young, predominately educated people have made the world a better place.

But more needs to be done.  We now live in a country where, despite being the wealthiest in the planet, 1 out of 3 Americans are either in poverty (46 million) or at 150% of the poverty line or below (54 million).  That number is breathtaking, shocking, unimaginable.  We think of America as being the land of opportunity, but the sad fact is that if you are born in poverty here, you are likely going to die in poverty, and your children will live and die in poverty as well.  We focus on the few 'rags-to-riches' stories, and mistakenly assume that hard work alone is enough to move ahead.  That simply is no longer the case, in large part because the high-paying jobs of today require a college education (or more), and those living in poverty are far less likely to go to good public schools, and far less likely to be able to afford, or go to and graduate from, a four-year college.  As a result, America's poor are stuck in low-wage, low-skill jobs with little-to-no upward mobility.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Spending on Elections: The Paradox of a Bad Investment

Every time we make a decision about how to spend or invest our money, one of the fundamental cost-benefit analyses we conduct is the following: for every increase in 'unit' of spending, what will be the expected increase in value? At some point, our own budgets, the quality of the product we are seeking to purchase, the law of diminishing returns and other behavioral and psychological factors--marketing, social pressure, etc--lead us to a choice. Generally speaking, when we spend more we expect to get more.

Consider, for instance, the electric shaver I recently purchased. After doing my homework, I narrowed the choice down to three (3) models of Braun shavers (and no, I'm not being paid to advertise for Braun!): the Series 3, which costs $70, the Series 5, which costs ~$150 and the ~$200 Series 7. Looking at the features and price of each, I decided that the Series 3 lacked some of the things I needed, and the Series 7 came with whiz-bang technology from which my face would never benefit. Put another way, had I spent the extra $50 on the Series 7, the marginal return would not have justified the additional price.

Sunday, September 30, 2012

The 47% And Disdain for the Poor

Mitt Romney's recent remarks about the 47% of Americans who pay no income tax, where he essentially argued that nearly half of the country consists of lazy moochers, is extremely galling and upsetting.  For me, however, the frustration comes not from the fact that a candidate for president of the United States of America holds such views, but rather because his arguments speak to a larger, bipartisan truth: as a society, generally speaking, we disdain the poor.  This might come as especially surprising given the fact that 1 out of 3 Americans either lives in poverty or close to it--a fact that would seem to imply that many Americans loathe themselves!

But no, we don't live in a nation of masochists; instead, we live in a nation so swayed by the illusion of upward mobility that we can't see our own stagnation.  Even worse, by refusing to note that hard work and perseverance are no longer enough to make it into the middle class--and stay there--we pour our anger onto the 47 million of those that live in poverty.  We do this in a myriad of subtle and not-so-subtle ways.  For instance, we have a tax policy that favors the wealthy (loopholes, capital gains tax rates that are far lower than income tax rates, mortgage deductions, etc).  Or there's the fact that the poor are more likely to be audited than the rich.  Or a funding system for public schools based largely on local property tax revenues, ensuring that the wealth of those living in a community dictates the quality of a school and the likelihood of its children graduating from high school and college.  And so on and so on and so on.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Officiating in the National Football League & Children Dying

Last Monday, two 'events' transpired, only one of which elicited national anger.  On the one hand, 25,000 children around the world died from eminently treatable illnesses like diarrhea--25,000 human lives, with all their potential, their beauty, their hope, snuffed out due to a lack of clean water to drink or cheap antibiotics to treat them.  On the other hand, the Green Bay Packers lost to the Seattle Seahawks on a last minute call that, observers around the country agree, was blown by replacement referees.  Now, there are many angles to this.  For one thing, the regular, unionized referees have been locked out by the NFL due to a dispute over pay and pensions, creating a fascinating dynamic whereby numerous anti-union figures, such as Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, find themselves begging for a return to the unionized referees.  What's more, it's been absolutely fascinating to read about the fact that, despite a litany of horrible calls by these amateur refs, many of which have literally changed the outcomes of games, viewership has actually gone up!  So it seems that the old adage 'there is no such thing as bad publicity' holds true.

Anyway, where was I?  Oh, right, national anger.  So one of these two events got the President of the United States, presidential and vice presidential candidates Romney and Ryan, several governors, talk show hosts, tv show hosts, bloggers, newspapers and countless millions of ordinary Americans to unleash a unified crescendo of dismay, disgust and disdain for...the NFL.  The fact that so many died quiet deaths in distant villages, crowded cities and everything in between?  Not a peep.  Not a word.  Not even a side note on the evening news.

Am I surprised?  No, of course not.  And there's no use rambling on and on with an acerbic and cynical tongue about how much more Americans seem to care about football than about injustice.  Instead, I want to propose something.  It's an idea I got while thinking over the paradox that when 30 people are shot dead in a movie theatre, the entire nation is moved to support the victims, but when tens of thousands die in unspectacular--one might call it unglamorous--fashion, nothing happens, beyond the trickle of donations that reach NGOs around the world on an annual basis--donations that fall far short of what it would take to ensure dignity and justice for all human beings.  So here's the idea: one day, just one day, I'd like for the front page news in the New York times to read as follows;

"Today, 25,000 children around the world died for no other reason than that no one cared enough to keep them alive, just as 25,000 more children will die tomorrow, and the day after that, and in perpetuity until we decide to care."  The rest of the article will be a real article, treating the death of these children as though it were as 'exciting' as a war or a natural disaster, instead of the unnatural and entirely avoidable calamity and injustice that it is.

I wonder if such an article would spur people into action?  I mean, after the tsunami of 2004, or the earthquakes in Haiti or Pakistan, Americans, and people all around the world, contributed billions of dollars and got involved in countless other ways.  So if we could just frame daily suffering in the same way we view disasters and war, might we not see a similar outpouring?  And, most importantly, might we not see so many lives lost to apathy?

I challenge the New York Times, or any other media outlet, to publish a story of this nature and see what kind of impact it has.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

T.E.C.H. -- A Harlem Children's Zone on Wheels

The Harlem Children's Zone (HCZ) is one of America's most well-known and impactful non-profits.  Their innovative model, which focuses on a 'cradle to college' approach to supporting children, has been replicated throughout the United States.  What's more, HCZ's dedication to data-driven programming has forced many in the education and broader non-profit fields to re-think how they do business.  For me, HCZ has been a source of inspiration because of the extent to which the organization takes a holistic approach to tackling poverty--recognizing that no one intervention will suffice to break the numerous and often impenetrable barriers to success faced by America's poor--and I congratulate Geoffrey Canada for pioneering the use of data, and for growing HCZ into what it is today.  At the same time, however, I have focused on one potential flaw to their model: it's cost and time-intensity.

In a recent article of mine, The Math of Social Change, I talked about how hard it is to accept that only a certain percentage of those we serve will truly benefit from the service.  I went on to explain that two  logical responses to this realization are to a) determine the characteristics of those that are likely to benefit and target the intervention to them, and/or b) increase the percentage of people that benefit from the intervention.  The necessity for both of these responses is born of the fact that social change work is all too often a zero sum game: with limited resources, the dollar spent on the person that does not benefit could have been spent on someone that would have benefited.  Therefore, it's imperative that we  do a better job targeting the right people, or ensuring that more people benefit from the intervention.

Summer PLUS -- A New Take on Summer Camp

As any regular follower of our work will know, we are obsessed with creating products and services that are replicable, sustainable and truly impactful.  For instance, realizing that truly ending poverty in the lives of our clients means breaking the intergenerational cycle of poverty in families, we launched the T.E.C.H. Program.  Under T.E.C.H., we offer our entire suite of products and services to low-income parents at partner elementary schools.  The theory of change is that by helping a family stabilize financially through financial coaching and free tax preparation, and gain access to technology through loans and training, the kids will do better in school and, in turn, in life.

However, we know that improving educational outcomes is a major challenge.  Given our passion for being honest with ourselves and others about what works and what doesn't, we decided to run a pilot summer camp at our first partner school, Pleasant View Elementary in Providence, Rhode Island, to see if adding a summer camp to the T.E.C.H. Program a) makes sense, b) is feasible and c) excites the kids.   Increasingly, our goal is to for T.E.C.H. to be a program for true transformation and change within a school and the school community.

The summer program, which we ran thanks to seven (7) summer AmeriCorps VISTAs and Dr. Gara B. Field, Principal of Pleasant view, was designed to eliminate summer learning loss, build character, instil a love of learning and introduce kids to technology.  The above video tells the story of the camp which was, in the opinion of everyone involved, a roaring success: the kids loved it and learned a ton, the counselors had a blast and felt like they made a difference, and the leadership at the school and the school district are thrilled with the results.  We want to be able to bring the summer PLUS model to every school with which we partner on T.E.C.H.!

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

CONTACT: Chip Unruh (Reed), 202-224-4642
Andy Posner (Capital Good Fund), 401-339-5437

RI Non-Profit Wins $81,000 Community Development Grant

PROVIDENCE, RI – Capital Good Fund (CGF), a non-profit financial services organization based in Providence, will receive an $81,273 Community Development Financial Institutions Technical Assistance grant to help revitalize low-income communities in Providence and better serve all of Rhode Island.

“I am pleased Capital Good Fund has won this competitive grant to help revitalize communities in Rhode Island,” said Reed, a member of the Appropriations Committee. “Offering loans and financial coaching to communities and small business owners are smart ways to foster economic opportunity and community development.”

Saturday, August 4, 2012

The Math of Social Change

The fight for social/environmental justice, regardless of the form the battle takes, is deeply imbued with emotion: we want to hear about the life changed, the forest preserved, the child educated, the disease eradicated, the war averted.  And to be sure, whether one donates to a non-profit, works for an organization that seeks to better the world or volunteers for a cause, one’s time, money, sweat and tears will almost always achieve a positive impact, however infinitesimal.
However, there is also a math to social change that cuts through emotion and gets at a simple question: does a particular intervention actually achieve the desired impact?  As the Executive Director of a non-profit, I have dedicated my entire life to bettering the world.  For the past four years I have worked 60+ hours a week to grow an organization that can tackle poverty in America.  After all this work, after thinking for so long about what product, service or combination of the two can really change lives, and after serving hundreds of people with loans, financial coaching, free tax preparation and various workshops, I have been forced to come to a painful conclusion: no matter how many people you serve, only a certain percentage of those served will truly benefit from the service.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

An Ode to Martin Luther King, Jr.

‘The Ruins Proclaim the Building Was Beautiful’—Arab saying

The ashes of your life
Span the decades like the wake
Of passing birds or clouds,
Visible only to he who can hold
In abeyance the lust for reality.

I walk as you walked, on ground
Trodden by truncheons, by branches,
By the rise and fall of hopes and dreams
Swept clean by time, by men and women,
By a society made sick with cleanliness.

You waged a war of peace; your bombs
Were marches, sit-ins, speeches:
Where others won by shooting, your victory
Came from being shot, a wound
That rent asunder an edifice of hate.

You pulled and tugged with all your might
To bend the arc of history, to reshape
The world in the image of love and justice;
Yet to me you bequeathed both your joy
And your sorrow at an imperfect world.

Will I live and die as you did?
Will the silent suffering of the masses
Become a thunderclap in the loudspeaker
Of my heart?  What am I to make
Of a triumph tinged with tragedy?

Invisible injustice is blind to redemption;
A prison of sadness cages your spirit.
Dr. King, I shall remain shackled  to your vision 

Until both the jailer and the jailed
Walk free into the sunlight as brothers and sisters!

By Andy Posner

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Invisible Suffering

Last week I spoke at a support group for unemployed persons organized by the Catholic Diocese of Rhode Island and hosted at a church in Cumberland, RI.  Originally intended as an opportunity for me to speak about the products and services offered by Capital Good Fund and the process for accessing them--which I did--the meeting ended up opening my eyes to the extent to which low to moderate-income Americans are suffering, and how invisible that suffering is.  The attendees, numbering around 25, were all unemployed; some had not had work for years; others had recently been laid off.  They shared painful stories of mistreatment by employers, the bleakness of the job market, and the feeling that no one is advocating for them or doing anything to improve their lot.

As I discussed strategies for increasing income, including entrepreneurship, budgeting, resume building and taking online or other courses so as to build skills, I came to a painful realization: whatever the attendees might do to get a job would be at the expense of another person seeking that job.  Given the state of our economy, a job search is truly a zero-sum game, and without broader, macro-economic changes in the American system, that paradigm won't change.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Leverage in the Fight for Social Justice

There are only so many hours in a day, days in a week and weeks in a year; we cannot squeeze more time out of the fabric of the universe without resorting to the extremes of relativity.  Yet the problems of poverty, racism, environmental degradation and other forms of injustice seem to demand more of the individual than can possibly be given.  As the Executive Director of Capital Good Fund, for instance, I am keenly aware of the dissonance between the amount of time and energy I possess and the demands placed on me by my work.

Over the last four years, however, I have come to two powerful and fundamental conclusions about the nature of the fight for social justice: first, that there is a tremendous difference between delivering a program or service and building an organization that can deliver that program or service, and second, that only through leverage can we ensure that the arc of history bends towards justice.

Consider the difference between volunteering at a soup kitchen, ladling soup to the homeless, and starting an organization that creates employment opportunities for the homeless.  While there is no doubt that, for those without a place to eat, a soup kitchen is an essential and, indeed, live-saving place, the fact remains that anyone can ladle soup into a bowl.  Those of us with the means to truly make a difference must ask more of ourselves; we must think about systemic change, about how to leverage every action, every idea and every hour into greater and more sustainable impact.  True social change does not come from the warm fuzzy feeling of ladling soup, nor does it come from occasional volunteerism.  Rather, social change happens when ideas people meet people with a knack for logistics, people who understand finance and operations...and when these people get together to build an organization, greater than the sum of its parts, that can tackle a problem until it is solved.

Take, for instance, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), one of the key organizations that led the fight for civil rights in the late 50's and 60's.  While the majority of Americans can identify Martin Luther King, Jr. and understand the impact of his work, far fewer recognize the role that the SCLC, the NAACP and other organizations played in advancing civil rights through legal action, coordinated protests, nonviolence training, fundraising and voter registration drives.  In other words, the success of the civil rights movement was as much the product of MLK's soaring speeches as well as his, and myriad other people's, ability to build an infrastructure that could engage the masses and force an end to segregation.

Had MLK simply been on his own, and not part of a broader movement, his brilliant speeches would have reached but a few ears and his life would not have become a pivotal part of American history.  The unsung heroes of social change are those that execute on the ideas of leaders; those that bring to their work a businessman or woman's attention to finances, operations and management.

So whether you are a leader or employee of a social change organization, it is imperative that you think about how to leverage your actions so that they have an impact beyond the reach of your arms and the sound of your voice.  An hour spent disbursing a loan to a woman in poverty is not the same as an hour developing the policy and procedures for how to effectively and consistently provide equitable financial services to the poor.  When I first started Capital Good Fund, I spent all my time answering phone calls and serving one client at a time; obviously, when we had no staff and were still trying to figure things out, that was the role I had to play.  But now, everything I do is about building systems, processes, policies and procedures that can transmogrify the vision I have for the organization into the actual impact it can have on the lives of thousands of human beings.

I encourage anyone that cares about social and environmental problems to consider how they spend their time and money addressing those issues.  Think about your actions as a kind of pulley that can lift up society; imagine how you can connect your passion with the community of people who share your passion.  Finally, I want to be clear that I am in no way demeaning the importance or power of volunteer work such as ladling soup at a soup kitchen.  Instead, what I am saying is that, given the choice between an hour of working at that soup kitchen and an hour building an organization that can deliver soup to the homeless day after day, there is no doubt in my mind where one's effort should be focused.  Indeed, when we consider that the community of people working for social good is far smaller than the forces that perpetuate injustice, we must recognize that the only way we can hope to see justice persevere is if our impact is multiplied through the judicious use of our time, our energy, our and our ideas.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Dreams and Realities

We all have dreams that fiercely flicker in the darkest depths of our being; they envelope us like string made of sunlight, spilling through a forest canopy to recover something precious from the Earth.  But always we awake to sights and sounds that take us away.  We rise, we wash, we eat, we travel, we work, we worry.  And always there is that something, that compost composed of all that humanity has discarded because they did not believe it could survive.  And because we did not believe in its survival, this precious something seemed to die.  And all around us there was injustice: a billion people living on a dollar per day; wars raging in jungles, in deserts, in mountains; millions of human beings languishing in jails for drug addiction, dying from curable disease, despairing of tomorrow, their today filled with sorrow; hundreds of millions lacking access to clean air, clean water, information, health care, good governance, good schools and hope; an environment stretched its limits, struggling to satiate a boundless hunger...

Oh, but even though we thought it dead, this precious something had instead been accumulating beneath our feet.  The rivers, streams, beaches, oceans, and even the pavements, the parking lots, the abandoned plots of land strewn about the world, all contain the soil of hope, of justice, of love, of beauty, of truth, and from that soil can sprout the world we all have sought.

It is so easy to acquiesce to the illusion of death, to the passing of time that wears and jades the purest of souls; it is so easy to bow to despair, so hard to smile at opportunity.  Wherever we laugh at death we delight at life. Freedom does not make one free to live, but rather liberates one to die.  And when we are free, we know that no curtain can fall on the masterpiece of our lives before the audience (oh, and there is always an audience) glimpses the poetry embedded in our actions.  And this poetry contains our immortality and our morality, the knowledge that though we come and go we always stay; that though we face both friend and foe neither knows where after death we go.

So let us rejoice in our freedom, in our humanity, in our wisdom and our ignorance.  Beyond the deepest reaches of our thoughts and our telescopes and our spacecraft and our submarines, there lies a terrain no mortal has trodden.  We glimpse it through love, through art, though wisdom, and somehow we sense that though there will come a time when we will see it fully, our eyes must be so full of the beauty of today that our feet stay rooted to the warmth and gentleness of where we stand.

Oh yes, let us do battle with illusion, let us sever the head of those shadows that fall short of our dreams.  Let us reach down at our feet and collect our hopes so as to recover our true selves.  Let us refuse to accept that there is a difference between somnambular wanderings and lucid wallowing, and in so doing, let us build a bridge of sunlight between who we are and who we wish to be.  Oh, and this sunlight will reveal our folly, for every time we shrug our shoulders or turn our backs, the perfection of the present dissolves into the pain of the past--the horrid whoosh of potential whipping past us, leaving us behind like a train whose destination we desire, but do not believe in.  Oh, but facing the light, facing ourselves and each other, not only can we calm our fears, but we can bring on the day when nighttime and daytime, dreams and realities, will meld together into one glorious stream of humanity, creating, seeking, despairing, loving and living in peace upon this planet.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Our Commitment

Director Andy Posner sent this email to the board, staff and interns of Capital Good Fund.

William Blake, the great 19th century British poet and mystic, once wrote that "if the doors of perception were cleansed, man would see anything as it is: Infinite."  When it comes to working for justice, we must maintain that sense of the infinite: infinite possibility and an infinite ability to innovate, problem-solve and feel compassion and empathy for others.  Unfortunately, the ubiquitous nature of injustice--poverty, corruption, environmental degradation, etc.--can so easily cloud our mental skies, obscuring our belief in our mission and holding us back from our true potential.  

When we work, to paraphrase Martin Luther King, to bend the arc of history towards justice, it is inevitable that setbacks and seemingly insurmountable challenges present themselves to us.  Borrowers fall behind on loans, events are poorly attended, processes and systems fail...all these things take their toll on us.  So our commitment must go beyond the mission; we must also devote our passion, love and intellect to the constant adjustments that must be made to solve seemingly intractable problems.

Sunday, April 29, 2012

See The Trees AND The Forest

This morning, as I planted the above tree in my yard, I started thinking about the saying "you can't see the forest for the trees," which refers to someone who is so caught up with the details that they can't see the larger picture.  The saying felt especially pertinent as I have spent last week working on how CGF is going to go from 3 loans a week, to three loans a day, to 300 hundred a day and, so on.  As I've pondered the challenges associated with achieving such significant scale, I have also kept my focus on those three loans a week--the loans to the low-income entrepreneur, to the disabled woman in need of a special chair, to the parent seeking to purchase a computer to help her child with homework--and so as I planted that beautiful little tree, as I showered it with water, with love with occurred to me that when it comes to social good, you must see the both trees and the forest.

What I mean is that, when you plant a tree, or when you empower another human being, you are doing a wonderful thing.  However, if all you do is serve one tree, one person at a time, then you are ignoring the scope of the broader problems facing earth and society, and you are also ignoring the broader social conditions that have disenfranchised the person and damaged the forest to begin with.  In other words, even as you work, one gesture of kindness at a time, to better the world, you must also think about how to replicate, scale and increase the impact of your actions.

So when you plant a tree, think about the late Wangari Maathai, the 2004 Nobel Peace Prize winner and founder of the Green Belt Movement, which has planted over 47 million trees in Kenya with the goal of preventing soil erosion, improving environmental quality, and empowering the people of Kenya to move out of poverty and fight corruption and dictatorship.  Each tree was planted with immense love and care, yet the Green Belt Movement has had tremendous impact because, in addition to that love and care, Wangari worked hard to build an organization with the infrastructure to enable thousands of people to plant millions of trees, take political action and take control of their destiny.  Wangari once said that "for me, one of the major reasons to move beyond just the planting of trees was that I have the tendency to look at the causes of a problem.  We often preoccupy ourselves with the symptoms, whereas if we went to the root cause of the problems, we would be able to overcome the problems once and for all."

In the same way, every loan that CGF disburses makes a tremendous difference in the life that borrower, his or her family and the community in which he or she lives.  But that is not enough.  I do not work 80 hours a week in order to serve a couple hundred people a year, for I know that, through the simple mechanism of leverage, those 80 hours can be used to create an organization that makes a significant dent in poverty, and the structural causes of poverty, in America.  I also know that if I pursue the path of scale and social impact with an authenticity and militancy of moral purpose, combined with a determination to solve the seemingly innumerable barriers to growth,  I can turn my obsession with ending poverty into the reality of drastically reducing, if not eliminating, poverty in America.

I think it's essential that those of us in our late teens and 20s--the generation that has grown up empowered by technology and the open-source and social entrepreneurship movements--to think about scale, for it is time that we grab injustice by the scruff of the neck and expunge it from the face of the earth;  or, to paraphrase Muhammad Yunus, we must work to poverty in the only place it belongs--museums.  After four years of working to create an innovative business model at CGF, I have come to see that developing that breakthrough business model--which I truly because we have finally figured out--is only 10% of the battle.  The other 90% has to do with all the details: building systems, policies, procedures, funding plans, staffing plans, sound financial practices and projectons, etc.  Another thing I've realized is that there is a tremendous difference between creating programs and creating an organization that delivers programs.  Building the organization means that you are creating something sustainable, something that can take on a life of its own and grow over time.

So my challenge to all of us looking to better the world, however we want to go about it, is to be sure to see both the trees and the forest--both the suffering of the individual and the structural barriers that allow that suffering to take place.  And once we see that, we must work to allay that suffering and knock down those barriers.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

An Interview With Dr. Muhammad Yunus

Dr. Muhammad Yunus, the 2006 Nobel Peace Prize winner, co-founder of Grameen Bank and "father" of microfinance, recently came to the US for a speaking tour. This interview highlights the moral and ethical force with which he speaks about ending poverty and bringing human dignity and respect to all.

Monday, April 9, 2012

Addition vs. Duplication in Social Entrepreneurship

I think that one of the most important things for any social entrepreneur to ask him or herself--and, by extension, any social venture, be it non-profit or for-profit--is whether the work they are doing is additive or duplicative.  There is no shortage of good-willed people, and organizations started by them, in this country; instead, what we lack are organizations that build upon the work of other players--governmental, for-profit, non-profit, community-based, faith-based, etc.--rather than duplicate that work.  In our case, when we started thinking about how to tackle the $100 billion/year predatory lending industry, we realized that we could never replicate the brick-and-mortar infrastructure of payday lenders, check cashers, pawn shows, auto title lenders and the rest of the gaggle the preys on the poor. 

Thursday, March 29, 2012

It's Not So Easy Being Green

I have an MA in Environmental Studies. I wrote my masters thesis on how to use financial services to empower people out of poverty and, as they do so, take action on environmental issues.  For 7 seven years my bicycle was my only means of transportation; I have solar panels on the roof of my condo and even a rain barrel...In short, you'd think I'd be the least likely of people to struggle with making a choice between the 'green' and 'gray' options.  Alas, it's not so simple.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Introducing The TECH Project

"What," you might be wondering, "does Capital Good Fund, an organization that provides financial services for the poor, have to do with education?"  Well, we're glad you asked! The TECH (Technology, Education & Community for Holistic-schools) Project brings together parents, teachers, students, and other stakeholders to foster vibrant school communities with the dual intention of increasing educational outcomes and lowering rates of poverty.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Hiring a Creative Officer!

CGF’s Creative Officer will work to create a press kit, videos about CGF’s work and borrowers, graphics that explain our business model and other important needs, and training materials for clients. 

Seeking a Special Projects Coordinator

Capital Good Fund (CGF) and Broadband Rhode Island (BBRI) recently signed a contract to pilot an innovative program through which we partner with underperforming elementary and middle schools to provide the parents with the following services: loans for computers and Internet service, digital literacy training and financial coaching. 

Hiring a Head Loan Officer

The Head Loan Officer will be tasked with closing at least 250 loans during the year of his or her service, while also maintaining a high repayment rate.  Accomplishing this will require an ability to become deeply embedded in the communities that CGF serves.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

RI Treasurer References CGF

From RI General Treasurer, Gina Raimondo:
(See paragraph 9 for  CGF name drop)

Protect R.I. from these abusive lenders


   Rhode Island’s economic outlook is directly linked to the financial well-being of its citizens. When Rhode Islanders are empowered to make informed, responsible financial decisions and can access capital on fair terms, our economy can prosper.

   We cannot build strong communities if our families are mired in debt and constantly worried about their financial footing. Some of these challenges may be mitigated or avoided through a greater understanding of personal finance and the dangers of risky lending products.

   As treasurer, my office is working with local nonprofits and financial institutions to offer financial literacy programs to a wide range of Rhode Islanders. We are also working with the state’s financial institutions to ensure greater access to safe, low-cost financial products.

   We must protect Rhode Islanders from abusive lending practices that impair our state’s economic success. One such practice is payday lending. With numerous economic challenges, Rhode Island cannot afford to permit the sale of a financial product that traps many consumers in a cycle of debt.

   A payday loan is a small, short-term loan secured against a customer’s next paycheck. A borrower writes a personal check for the amount borrowed plus the finance charges or “fee” and receives cash in return. The borrower must pay the amount borrowed plus the fee on his or her next payday in one lump sum. Payday advocates highlight the fact that these loans help consumers who would otherwise have nowhere to turn because traditional financial institutions are reluctant to lend to risky borrowers.

   Too often, however, that begins a vicious cycle of debt, as the borrower is forced to take out another loan to make ends meet until his or her next paycheck. The Center for Responsible Lending estimates that borrowers who take out 12 or more loans a year generate the majority of the industry’s business.

   I have joined with state Rep. Frank Ferri, state Sen. Juan Pichardo, Mayor Taveras and the Rhode Island Payday Lending Reform Coalition in advocating against this practice.

   We should curb the predatory practices of the payday lending industry, while ensuring fair access to capital and financial education needed to thrive.

   One such safer alternative is the Capital Good Fund, a Providence-based nonprofit, which provides loans and financial coaching to low-income Rhode Islanders. Some credit unions are also beginning to launch safe payday alternatives.

   Payday lending is relatively new in Rhode Island and we are the only New England state to allow it. Prior to 2001, existing law capped small dollar loans at a maximum rate of 3 percent a month — or 36 percent APR. However, legislative changes in 2001 and 2005 made Rhode Island fertile ground for the national payday lending chains. Today, a payday lender can charge up to $10 per every $100 borrowed over a two-week period, which equates to a 260 percent APR.

   In 2006, with bi-partisan support, Congress banned lenders from issuing payday loans to members of the armed forces or their dependents. This action was taken in response to growing financial problems associated with the practice of payday lending around military bases.

   It is time for Rhode Island to take action. The General Assembly should enact legislation that mandates a reduction in the allowable payday-lending interest rate, requires lenders to offer extended repayment plans, calls for greater disclosure of the real dangers associated with payday lending and emphasizes the need to create and publicize safer alternatives.

   In protecting our citizens from predatory lending, we can take a step toward a more prosperous economic future.