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Emilie Rafal Interned at FOCUS

As an intern at FOCUS Women’s Resource Agency, I was exposed to the inner workings of a small non-profit organization. While workingRafal there, I gained invaluable knowledge about how non-profits are run, how such organizations can help women, and the impact that they have on their communities. Because FOCUS is a small organization, I worked with and learned about many different programs; however, I worked most closely with Robin Eliason, the Director for Counseling and Career Services, and Sandi Burke, the career counselor.

Robin and Sandi were beginning the process of making a microloan program available to women in the Charlottesville area through FOCUS. Because I was part of FOCUS through the critical early stages of the microloan program, I had a unique view of how a program moves from concept to practice; this perspective gave me an important understanding of the work that goes in to programs aimed at helping women.

FOCUS offers a variety of programs including mental health counseling, career counseling, group therapy, workshops including assertiveness training, and programs for teen mothers and at-risk youth through Teensight. It is also one of many agencies and organizations around the world that offer microloans.

When the Piedmont Housing Alliance and the Alliance for Interfaith Ministries contacted FOCUS with the idea and funding for a small microloan program, the staff jumped at the opportunity. The Piedmont Housing Alliance allotted $5,000 to start the program, and FOCUS researched how other small, local non-profit organizations structured their microloan programs.

The microloans are reserved for women looking to buy supplies, get the necessary training, or subsidize any other costs of starting or maintaining a business. The interest rate for the loans is fixed at 4% and has a two-year maturity. In the creation of the application process, the microloan team wanted to make it as accessible and painless as possible.

The microloan review committee is made up of a local financial consultant, a local business owner, and FOCUS staff. The application asks for a brief financial history, including any outstanding loans, and a description of what the microloan would be used for. Though the application does not require a full business plan, the review committee does want to see that the funds will be used appropriately.

The second part of the application process is an interview with the applicant. In the interview, the review committee discusses any problems they had with the application and how the microloan will help the applicant further their business venture. After the interview, the committee discusses the application and determines the conditions of the loan. Women are allowed to receive up to $1,500, and often the money is given under the condition that it is used for specific purposes.

FOCUS also requires all women who receive loans to go through four to six hours of training in the first year of the loan. The training is tailored to the individual, but may include guidance about how to set up a Quickbooks account or how to budget money effectively.

In the meetings with applicants and about applicants, the phrase that was repeated most often was that the loans were there to help women, not to bury them under debt they cannot afford. When taking applications into consideration, the most important factor was whether the women would truly be helped by our small loan.

The benefit of having a microloan program through a women’s resource center is that it is a more personalized and personal experience. The women are regarded as human beings with more than a credit history working for or against them. And, the microloan program resembles other microlending programs in the United States because it utilizes training programs and is designed for women. Through the microloan program, FOCUS continues to work to improve women’s lives; by offering loans to women who might be overlooked by banks and other more traditional routs of obtaining loans, FOCUS remains an institution willing to help women who may not be offered help otherwise.

As the microloan program began, we tried to publicize its availability widely in order to reach as many women as possible. I sent letters to local business consultants describing the program. We contacted the Charlottesville Albemarle Technical Education Center and SCORE, a group of retired businesspeople who counsel business owners. Our meeting with SCORE was particularly helpful because they offered to help with some of the mandatory training for the loan recipients. Both CATEC and SCORE were enthusiastic about passing information about the microloan program on to women who might benefit from it. 

Most exciting, however, was the interest from the local news. The local newspaper, The Daily Progress, ran an article about our microloan program, including information about how to apply. And, one of the television stations ran a short segment about the program as well. The publicity was vital to the success of the program, because it ensured that local women would hear about it.

After the newspaper article ran, we quickly got two applications and many more calls asking for more information. Also interesting was the response from outside of the community. One social worker from North Carolina happened to be on vacation in Charlottesville when the television segment was on the news, and contacted Dr. Eliason about how to start a microloan program at the non-profit organization she worked for. The reaction from the Charlottesville community and elsewhere about the microloan program has been highly positive; FOCUS has not garnered this much attention in quite a while, and the entire organization has benefited greatly from the publicity. After garnering media attention, FOCUS received a handful of viable applications. I saw two women’s application process from start to finish.

Being part of FOCUS as the microloan program launched was an invaluable experience because I learned about grant writing, advertising, the organization of non-profit programs, and how to assess local resources and needs, among many other things. Though new, the microloan program has already made an impact on the Charlottesville area and will hopefully continue to do so. The program adheres to FOCUS’ goals of helping women to become independent and reach their full potential by supporting women’s economic self-sufficiency. The two application processes that I observed were heartening because it was evident that the microloan program was bringing a great deal of hope to the applicants. Though there is little academic research that confirms that microlending is always beneficial, FOCUS’ aim of making the best decision for the applicant is a refreshing way to think about aid and economics.