In 2011 the César E. Chávez Institute was selected to conduct a 2-year evaluation of a culturally relevant and socially responsible credit-building loan program for low- and moderate-income persons in San Francisco. During this period, CCI worked closely with the Mission Asset Fund (MAF), a local non-profit organization in the Mission District that launched the successful Cestas Populares, or Lending Circles.
MAF's Lending Circles program is a formalized approach to traditional peer lending circles found in many cultures around the world, known by many different names - like Susus throughout Africa, Paluwagan in the Philippines, Lun-hui in China, and Tandas in Mexico. In such circles, which may have a handful of participants or dozens (often friends, relatives and neighbors with similar characteristics), each participant pays an agreed upon amount into the lending circle, and the combined funds are allocated among participants each taking turns for some agreed upon time period.
In a modern context, lending circles offer their members the opportunity to cooperatively build assets, improve credit scores, lower their debt burden, and develop financial expertise, so that they can successfully enter the financial mainstream and build a more secure economic future for themselves, their families and their local community.
MAF's strategy has been to formalize the lending circles through partnerships with financial institutions such as CitiBank and Credit Builders Alliance to secure the loans, handle the transactions and provide the repayment information to major credit bureaus. Since its creation in 2008, the Lending Circles have helped hundreds of participants build credit histories, improve credit scores, lower debt burdens, and increase their overall financial capability.
The Institute recently concluded this 2-year project with MAF and the San Francisco Office of Financial Empowerment (OFE) to replicate this model beyond the Mission District and the Latino immigrant community by franchising the Lending Circles to additional, ethnically diverse neighborhoods in San Francisco. CCI's role has been to evaluate the program's effectiveness at increasing the financial capacity of low- to moderate-income persons in the original Mission area plus the five new communities. The evaluation included qualitative and quantitative data to document the financial, personal, and economic progress of participants, and what changes occurred over the course of their participation. The project also explored how to replicate this approach to lending circles at both regional and national levels. The two resulting reports were released on June 4, 2013.