Microlending gets an organic boost from Whole Foods

Bearded Whole Foods employees compete to raise the most money for microloans in “Shave the Planet” hosted at Whole Foods Fort Collins, Colorado.
Source: Whole Planet Foundation

Claire Golubski burst into tears while sitting at a bar in Austin, Texas, but not because she was happy or sad. The reason was because the beer she had ordered cost $7.

Golubski had just returned home after a month-long volunteer trip in a village east of Nairobi, Kenya, and her friends had thrown her a welcome back party. It reminded her of how much gets taken for granted in developed economies.

"You see the impact that a dime or a quarter would make on someone's life, so when you come back, you're so taken with what $7 could actually do with someone back in Kenya," Golubski said.

Claire was one of 15 employees in 2012 that Whole Foods supported to travel to Kenya, one of 61 countries where the Whole Planet Foundation, the company's nonprofit arm, partners with local nonprofits to provide small amounts of borrowed capital called microloans.

Borrowing rates vary, but are typically far higher than prevailing bank offered rates, according to data from CGAP. Depending on the location and the kind of project, microfinance amounts can range from a few hundred dollars to more than $10,000. Most borrowers pay back the mircoloans in their entirety, with default rates at about 3 percent.

So far, Whole Foods has sent more than 500 employees to help implement microloan programs around the world. Meanwhile, Whole Planet has raised more than $62.4 million since 2007—with all of it going to provide microcredit. The foundation also partnered with hundreds of microfinance institutions and so far supports 875,158 micro-entrepreneurs around the world.

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"I've always wanted to be more involved but that trip was really the big jumping off point for me," said the 25-year-old Golubski. "Once you're exposed to the amount of impact you can make, you almost feel socially responsible to take up on yourself and create change."

Golubski is a specialty products manager for Whole Foods, and she credited the trip for having galvanized her to organize an art fair and outdoor concert with her co-workers at the Arbor Trails store in Austin. That event raised $2,000 for microloans, and this year's art fair raised another $3,426—enough to provide 17 loans.

"I channeled what Austin is already crazy about ... local art, crafts, beer and music," Golubski said, and turned that into fundraising fodder.

Car washes, Grammys and beards

Claire Golubski, right, hosted a craft fair and outdoor concert at Whole Foods Austin to raise $2,000 for the foundation’s microloan program.
Source: Whole Planet Foundation

Whole Foods' emphasis on microlending is part of a growing trend among companies. Many have re-oriented themselves to increase their focus on philanthropy and social responsibility, said Maggie Neilson, CEO of Global Philanthropy Group. In many ways, it reflects the idealism of younger workers, she said, who want to give back to society and feed their own entrepreneurial aspirations.

"Look at what the millennial workforce responds to. They won't work somewhere that's top down," said Neilson, whose firm has helped corporations such as Dell, American Express and Gucci develop and implement philanthropy campaigns.

"They've been raised knowing they have a voice, raised wanting to use it and want to be part of the decision making process," she added.

In that vein, Whole Foods employees are called "team members" who are encouraged to participate in the foundation's philanthropic efforts. There's no mandate from headquarters that every store is required to organize fundraisers for Whole Planet, but every one of the company's 409 stores worldwide host its own unique fundraising event.

Team members in Glasgow, Scotland, organized a car wash, while another group in Los Angeles threw a pre-Grammy party that drew more than 1,000 participants. Separately, bearded team members at a Colorado store volunteered their beards for a shaving fundraising competition.

They've been raised knowing they have a voice, raised wanting to use it and want to be part of the decision making process
Maggie Neilson
CEO of Global Philanthropy Group

To the outsider, the open-ended nature of Whole Foods' fundraising efforts may seem disjointed, but it works because of the decentralized nature of the company, according to Joy Stoddard, Whole Planet's executive partnership development director. "It's just an invitation, but all stores end up participating."

The model differs from prior years, which skeptics say was mainly used to generate good press or were vanity projects. A decade ago, Neilson said companies launched philanthropy campaigns for one of two reasons: they were in hot water and needed positive PR, or an executive was interested in a cause, and wanted the rest of the company to get on board.

But to Neilson, Whole Food's microloan campaign "feels true to me. It's not a marketing pitch. Whole Foods has been ahead of curve in all kinds of ways," she said.

The organic grocer is "more respectful to employees, less top down. And now, social responsibility has become part of their livelihood," Neilson added.

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More recently, companies are implementing philanthropy proactively, Neilson said, in order to attract millennials as customers and employees.

"It's a business imperative. Millennials care about blending the nonprofit and for-profit parts of their lives," she added. "Companies are taking action far earlier, and it's being strategically interwoven into the company's mission and purpose."