Meeting House

Exterior of First Unitarian Society of Madison's Meeting House at 900 University Bay Drive.

As the third-largest Unitarian Universalist congregation in the country, First Unitarian Society in Madison has the size and muscle to get things done.

A couple of years ago, some of its 1,600 members were looking for ways the congregation could address economic disparities in the world. They landed on microfinancing.

That's the movement in which people in developing countries who lack access to formal banking systems are loaned money to start or continue small businesses. Even tiny amounts matter, such as $100 so a person can buy a sewing machine and start a tailoring business.

"It's really about employing the best aspects of capitalism to help people claw their way out of impoverishment," said Kendall Harrison, a member of the church's microfinance task force.

The initiative has been a success, and now church members have created an online "microfinance starter kit" to inspire and support other congregations or organizations interested in joining the movement.

The kit, at www.fusmadison.org/microfinance, includes tips and fact sheets, plus a downloadable poster and donation envelope.

At First Unitarian, task force members bypassed traditional fundraisers and went to the congregation with a direct pitch to donate money. The church's foundation pledged to match up to $10,000. The total amount raised would then be invested in microfinance organizations that would pay returns to the church on the money.

This approach, similar to socially responsible investing, made for a more sustainable, longer-lasting program than a one-time donation, said Scott Andersen, another task force member. It also made for an easier pitch — donors would be strengthening the church's financial health while helping to reduce international poverty.

"It was a one-two punch," he said. "There were benefits on both the local and global level."

About 50 families donated a total of $13,000. With the church foundation's $10,000 match and a $10,000 grant from the national Unitarian Universalist Association, the church had $33,000 to invest.

Choosing a reputable microfinance organization to partner with was critical to reduce risk, Andersen said. First Unitarian invested a majority of its money with Working Capital for Community Needs, a Madison nonprofit organization with a 27-year track record in microfinancing.

The church is getting a guaranteed return of 4.5 percent from WCCN for the two-year term of its investment, Andersen said. Much of the interest will be funneled back to additional microfinance investments, he said.

Jeanne Duffy of WCCN said a few other churches across the country invest with them, but always with money from rainy day or reserve funds. First Unitarian is the first church to raise a new pot of money for the express purpose of investing in microfinancing, she said.


Religion-related story ideas? Email derickson@madison.com.

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