The visionary Lending Circles program brings low-income communities out of the shadows.
Today, the MacArthur Foundation announced this year’s class of MacArthur Fellows. Among the short list of esteemed awardees is José Quiñonez, Founder and Chief Executive Officer of Mission Asset Fund (MAF). The announcement has been covered by news outlets including the New York Times, the Washington Post, and The LA Times.
The MacArthur Fellowship, often referred to as a “genius grant,” recognizes those with exceptional creativity, a track record of achievement, and the potential for significant contributions in the future. Each fellow receives a no-strings-attached stipend of $625,000 to support awardees’ pursuit of their creative visions. Since 1981, fewer than 1,000 people have been named MacArthur Fellows. Fellows are selected through a rigorous process that has involved thousands of expert and anonymous nominators, evaluators, and selectors over the years. Past fellows have included notable individuals like Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Alison Bechdel, and Ta-Nehisi Coates.
“This award is a high honor that recognizes the ingenuity of people who live in the shadows, who come together to help one another to survive and thrive in life. The award lifts up what is right and good in people’s lives – the trust and commitment they have for one another,” says Quiñonez.
According to the Foundation:
José A. Quiñonez is a financial services innovator creating a pathway to mainstream financial services and non-predatory credit for individuals with limited or no financial access. A disproportionate number of minority, immigrant, and low-income households are invisible to banks and credit institutions, meaning they have no checking or savings accounts (unbanked), make frequent use of nonbank financial services (underbanked), or lack a credit report with a nationwide credit-reporting agency. Without bank accounts or a credit history, it is nearly impossible to obtain safe loans for automobiles, homes, and businesses or to rent an apartment.
Quiñonez is helping individuals overcome these challenges by linking rotating credit associations or lending circles, a traditional cultural practice from Latin America, Asia, and Africa, to the formal financial sector. Lending circles are typically informal arrangements of individuals pooling their resources and distributing loans to one another. Through the Mission Asset Fund (MAF), Quiñonez has created a mechanism for reporting individuals’ repayment of small, zero-interest loans to credit bureaus and other financial institutions. MAF participants are able to establish a credit history and gain access to credit cards, bank loans, and other services, and lending circles focused on youth provide individuals with fees for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrival applications and apartment security deposits (which are particularly needed by youth aging out of foster care). All participants are required to complete a financial training class and are provided with financial coaching and peer support. Since the lending circles were established in 2008, participants’ credit scores, collectively, have increased an average of 168 points.
Quiñonez has established a network of partnerships with the financial services industry to enable other organizations to replicate his approach. With Quiñonez and MAF providing the technology necessary to disperse and track loans (a significant hurdle for many nonprofits) and assisting in securing local partners and investors, 53 nonprofit providers in 17 states and the District of Columbia are now using this powerful model in their communities. Quiñonez’s visionary leadership is providing low-income and minority families with the means to secure safe credit, participate more fully in the American economy, and obtain financial security.