Q&A: Batten professor helps launch World Refugee Fund

Mahoney’s Alight Fund partnered with Kiva to launch the World Refugee Fund

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Mahoney also serves as the director of Social Entrepreneurship at the University.

Co-founded by John Kluge and Batten Assoc. Prof. Christine Mahoney, the Alight Fund partnered with micro-loan non-profit Kiva to launch the World Refugee Fund in honor of World Refugee Day.

Mahoney, also the director of Social Entrepreneurship at the University and author of “Failure and Hope: Fighting for the Rights of the Forcibly Displaced,” co-founded the Alight Fund with her husband as a for-profit investment fund to support refugee and host community entrepreneurs.

Kiva is a nonprofit that grants micro-loans to developing countries. In 2016, the company lent $1 million in crowdfunding to refugee entrepreneurs.

The Alight Fund, partnered with the Tent Foundation and U.S.A. for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, helped raise almost $300,000 to match every dollar Kiva users raise through the World Refugee Fund.

The Cavalier Daily talked to Mahoney about her impact at the University, in Charlottesville and around the globe.

KB: “What do you do at the University?”

CM: “I am a Batten faculty member, and I do research on advocacy and activism and social entrepreneurship. So my most recent research is on the global refugee crisis and advocacy and direct action through social entrepreneurship and impact investing with the global refugee crisis. I had a book come out last year called “Failure and Hope: Fighting for the Rights of the Forcibly Displaced.”

In addition, I launched and I also lead Social Entrepreneurship at U.Va., which is logistically led out of the Batten School for Leadership and Public Policy, but is for the entire University. In that role, I launched the classes. We have 12 courses in social entrepreneurship open to anyone at the University. Last year, we launched a minor. We now have a 198 minors in social entrepreneurship and we have 500 students in our courses this year, and I run all of the programming related to it as well.”

KB: “How does that relate to your work with the Alight Fund?”

CM: “I had been doing field work in refugee and international displacement camps for almost 10 years, and the research I had been doing leading up to the book I had come out last year. What I was looking at was human rights advocacy on behalf of the forcibly displaced. And what I found, in case after case, is generally it’s failed. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, the NGOs helping the displaced and the U.S. government and European governments essentially have no leverage when it comes to fighting for the rights of refugees and internally displaced persons.

From my experience in building Social Entrepreneurship at U.Va., and my knowledge of more innovative approaches to social change, and my experience knowing that you are going to need significant leverage if you’re going to be successful in advocacy, my book concluded with the proposal to use impact investing and microfinance goals to encourage those governments to change their anti-work policies. I have a 2014 Ted Talk where I [said] this could be done through Kiva. Kiva was already in existence, they were lending to poor people in emerging markets, but they weren’t lending to refugees.

I was at the World Humanitarian Summit with my husband [John Kluge] last summer and we were talking to people about this idea, and everyone liked the ideas that I’d put forward in the book, but really there were no organizations that were ready to move into the space, and Kiva was busy with its work helping poor entrepreneurs in its markets and they were not ready to move into the refugee space. We decided to start our own fund, and that’s what led to the Alight fund. We began looking at, in what markets would it make sense to start, so we started looking at the Kurdish region of Iraq, KRI. We went there in November.

We began this partnership with Kiva a couple months later, basically what we found was that there are investors, there’s a large number of impact investors that are interested in investing in return seeking capital. So not charity, but actual investment in the refugee crisis. However, there’s not enough data that will show that they will get their money back and that they will get a return on investment.

There’s two ways that we can go about getting that data. We can start a small data project in KRI, and we can lend to entrepreneurs and collect the data ourselves and show investors that this can work. An alternative is a partnership with an organization that already has a network on the ground, like Kiva. They already have a network of microfinance organizations all over the world.

That’s how this collaboration unfolded with Kiva, the Tent Foundation and the organization called USA for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, which is a U.S. based organization that supports the UNHCR. That’s how it came about, this idea that if we collaborated and we helped Kiva scale up their funding, if we helped match the foundation and corporate matches to their individual member donations to refugees, then we can collaborate on the data collection, we can have a much better database for investors, so that they can feel more confident directing their capital into this crisis.”

KB: “What is the World Refugee Fund?”

CM: “The WRF is a specific pool of funds within the Kiva universe, that is directed toward refugee, IVP and host community entrepreneurs. What we as the Alight Fund, the Tent Foundation, the USA for UNHCR and other organizations have helped organize is we helped mobilize corporate and foundational matches.

Essentially, last year about $1 million was raised through Kiva for a pilot to support refugee entrepreneurs. What we’ve added is these matches. If you go on there, and you as an individual wanted to invest $25 to an entrepreneur, for example a Syrian entrepreneur in Lebanon, that $25 will be matched by the corporate and foundation matches that we’ve mobilized. So far it’s $300,000 and we’re mobilizing additional matches.”

KB: “Is that you at the Alight Fund or you at the World Refugee Fund?”

CM: “The WRF is a collaboration of all of those organizations at the bottom [of the website]. We’ve been helping mobilize that and organize that. All of those organizations collectively are matching. We’re trying to get away from a siloed approach, where only individual organizations do one-off things. We’re trying to bring together a more massive impact through collaboration.”

KB: “How does matching help people?”

CM: “In my social entrepreneurship classes, each year I run a ‘social hustle,’ where I give each team $5 and they have to go out around grounds for two hours to try to make a profit. They get really creative, some of them do massages, one year students made whipped cream pies and they threw them in each other’s faces. Usually, within two hours, a class will make $400-$600.

We then invest that in a entrepreneur on Kiva. Each student then finds an entrepreneur on Kiva that they believe in for whatever reason, whether it’s a women, whether it’s a specific country, whether it’s focusing on environmental stability. And they pitch to each other who we should invest in as a class.

This year, I did that in both of my classes. We invested about $800 or $900 on Kiva. The students that found entrepreneurs that had a corporate match were more motivated. They were like, ‘we could give this money to this entrepreneur in Burma and it’s going to be matched by some corporate partner,’ ... you see your impact, you see your money go further. You can see an impact on a person more quickly.”

KB: “How do you think your impact has been felt in Charlottesville?”

CM: “We’ve gotten a little bit of press. We’ve been on the local TV and we’ve had a number of articles. I think a number of students have been inspired. A couple students have asked me to come and speak at a fundraiser they did for Syria, and I met with them a few times about how can you have an impact on this crisis. In that way, I think students seeing someone doing something and not just talking about it can be motivating.

I’m on the board of the International Rescue Committee, which is our local organization that helps resettle refugees. If people are inspired by the article, the IRC is a great way. The IRC helps families get resettled in Charlottesville. They get on their own feet within the year, and many of them start their own businesses.

There’s a number of businesses around town in Charlottesville that were started by refugees that were resettled by the IRC. They do really phenomenal work. Refugees are entrepreneurs because when you lose everything, you have to get really creative about restarting again and mobilizing resources. And they do that both abroad, where we’re focusing our work with the Alight Fund, but they do it here in the U.S. when they get resettled to Charlottesville.”

Some of the responses included were edited for length.

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