Publication Date

1999

Abstract

In the field of United States domestic microcredit development, the Self-Employment Learning Project (SELP) has emerged as one of the leading research groups. In their 1996 study, The Practice of Microenterprise in the U.S., the SELP team concluded that there needs to be a standardized microlending program or a few standardized program formats in use across the United States to meet the needs of all microentrepreneurs. I disagree with this position. Unlike the SELP study, Working Capital, a leading microcredit program based in Massachusetts, has discovered that this mono-program type of approach has not always been that successful because of the variety of communities and businesses that it serves. What has been discovered from program implementation experience is that there may need to be several programs in place to meet the variety of client needs that exist. And within each of these program types, there may also need to be room for adaptability as well. "Working Capital in a Box," the nickname for Working Capital's peer-lending program, has been replicated all over the state of Massachusetts and elsewhere with varying degrees of success. Some of the successes and failures can be directly attributed to a combination of social, cultural and market niche factors that may not have been directly considered when implementing the program. The new WC Alliance Program was created based on the learning of the peer-lending program. Because of the program structure, it has the potential to be more flexible to meet the needs of the variety of groups that it serves. One of Working Capital's target areas for growth and development is in the area of ethnic and immigrant group outreach (Ashe and Clark, 1998:4). However, there has yet to be a clearly targeted needs assessment carried out on a system-wide basis of the groups of entrepreneurs that Working Capital already serves that would show culturally, socially, and/or market niche-based programmatic needs. This type of study is also necessary for all incoming groups to the program in order for Working Capital to discover how best to work with the group and to find out where program flexibility may be necessary. A pilot needs assessment was created and implemented to answer some basic questions that both Working Capital and I had concerning the creation of effective microcredit programs and products that will serve to stimulate community economic development by building strong peer-lending and alliance groups. Within the body of this pilot needs assessment were embedded questions that could shed light on the focus of this paper. The pilot needs assessment was designed from the perspective that values and utilizes cultural, social and market-niche understanding, norms and indicators as a basis from which program development needs to proceed. The question posed for this study is: "How can the results of the pilot needs assessment tool show places where the programs, especially the Enterprise Alliance Program product, be made more flexible to accommodate the cultural, social and market niche norms and indicators that are discovered in each group that Working Capital works with?" Secondarily, can the knowledge gained from this tool assist in the future access of markets that have not been reached before? What is shown in this paper is that Working Capital needs to allow more flexibility and adaptability in both its program and product design as well as in its group development strategy if a more efficient and successful program is to move forward towards meeting the organization's goals of maintaining its double bottom line of serving low income business owners and of attaining financial sustainability.

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