WoKai volunteers Alexandra Geerts (left) and Amina Belouizdad (right) at the May30th Yogathon. The shirt reads: “Help Ms. Wei Open a Noodle Stand.”
Microfinance, fundraising, and…yoga?
We didn’t get it either – so, to figure out how those three go together, Shanghaiist got up early Sunday morning and went to One Wellness to attend microfinance donation platform Wokai’s benefit Yogathon.
Unlike other charity models that typically distribute aid to those in need, microfinance groups like Wokai (我开, meaning “I start [an enterprise]”) help aspiring but penniless entrepreneurs by financing small loans. “It’s the whole idea of trade versus aide,” said Amina Belouizdad, the director of Urbn Hotels who works as a WoKai volunteer. “Do we want to give, or do we want to help people help themselves?”
Using loans with interest, microfinance allows people to take responsibility for their own economic future, teaching them how to save, spend, and invest – not just how to receive. This nothing-comes-for-free model is all about one thing: empowerment.
WoKai is unique in that it takes this idea a step further by also empowering a donor. WoKai doesn’t lend money; instead, it liaises between two established Sichuan and Inner Mongolia lenders and donors from around the world. The website allows potential donors to read the stories of people waiting for a loans and donate accordingly. Once loans are paid back in full, donors are alerted and can choose to re-allocate their funds up to two more times. “The mutual empowerment is what drives WoKai,” said Alexandra Geertz, another volunteer at the organization. “The kind of people who donate money to charity already have a vested interest in helping others, and WoKai–by letting donors select where their money goes–enhances that interest by bringing the exchange to a more personal human-to-human level.”
In order to assuage donation apprehensions (and who doesn’t have some, considering the amount of fraudulent “charities” found all over the world?), Wokai has outlined on their site – in explicit detail – the efforts that they’ve taken not only to choose their field partners, but also monitor their lending practices and progress. Both of Wokai’s current field partners have an impressive repayment rate of over 98%.
So then why yoga? How does yoga fit into the microfinance mix?
“Because what a great way to spend a Sunday,” answered Geertz. “Hopefully the exercise aspect will encourage people to come out and participate.”
Yoga is also attractive because, while being popular, it tends to be pricey. By offering a full day of yoga for a paltry 100RMB (most studios charge more than that for an hour), Wokai was able to entice more than forty people to stop by and participate.
Which also helped Wokai’s other goal for the Yogathon. “One of the biggest problems with microfinance in China is that most people don’t know what it is, and that it exists as an alternative option to those in need,” Geertz said. “By hosting events like today’s, we hope to raise as much awareness about microfinance as anything.” Several donors/participants reported that they’d been to WoKai’s website before deciding to show up, having learned more about microfinance as a result.
And surprisingly, for at least five of those newcomers, Sunday was their first time ever trying yoga. Altogether, WoKai was able to raise over 4000RMB for microfinance loans and generate a bit more public awareness.
“It wasn’t just yoga, people actually went to our site,” said an excited and pleasantly surprised Belouizdad at the end of the day. “A success.”