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Wednesday, July 23, 2014

It's a Milestone Day

We are so proud to announce that after a long wait, we have officially received 501(c)(3) nonprofit status from the International Revenue Service. Along with this status, we will be able to receive a large number of resources and benefits, including updated software, better communication systems, and community grants. As we begin our next academic year, we are so excited to see how we can better help our community.

We are incredibly thankful for the number of organizations that have helped us over the past two years, including St. Joseph County Bridges Out of Poverty, Lend for America, Center for the Homeless, and South Bend Heritage Foundation. We also send so much gratitude to Peter Woo, who truly saw a problem in the community and chose to make steps toward solving it.

We are also proud to announce that we have also made our 20th loan! Our intern, Aaron Bode, will soon be posting more information about our new loan, but we know that we are clearly on the right track!

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Lend for America Blog Post (Longer Version)

This blog post was originally written for one of JIFFI's partner organizations, Lend for America (LFA). LFA was instrumental in JIFFI's genesis, and we continue to utilize their expertise as we expand our operations and footprint. From the LFA website: 

"Lend for America empowers student leaders to build their communities through the creation of campus microfinance institutions (Campus MFIs). Our national platform supports students practicing microfinance in the U.S. by providing training, networking, funding, and research."

You can find Lend for America's published version of this post here; the version below is the longer, original copy of the post. Enjoy!



My name is Aaron Bode, and I am the summer intern for the Jubilee Initiative for Financial Inclusion, otherwise known as JIFFI. To hear more about our organization, I recommend reading Alec Schoemann’s blog from early June; I worked with Alec this past year and he did a wonderful job outlining our work. My focus for this post, however, has to do with a specific aspect of JIFFI and microlending as a whole: client interaction. As I delve into this topic and explain the situation of a recent JIFFI client, I invite you to reflect on the following question, and respond with your honest reaction:

If I begin to talk about someone experiencing poverty, whom do you imagine in your mind?




Your answers may be different, but here are various responses I believe "the public" collectively holds: Single parent. Black. Young. Foreigner. Victim. Tattooed. Standoffish. Dirty. Resigned. Uneducated. Oppressed. Criminal. White trash. Lazy. Elderly. Unemployed.

As Americans, we like to believe in a society where the “American Dream” is accessible to everyone, and anyone who works hard can achieve at least a middle class lifestyle. Thus, people tend to associate poverty with a kind of personal failure. This flawed thinking has been analyzed elsewhere (for example, check out Inequality for All), but the relevance of it to this particular blog post is how stereotypical views of those in poverty impact client interactions in and outside the microlending process.

One of the great challenges when working with JIFFI is to connect with individuals by meeting them “where they are in life,” instead of dwelling on conjectures as to who they are or where they come from. To truly serve clients to the best of our abilities, it takes understanding and accurate characterizations of the lives those experiencing poverty live. This can only come from a) context and b) time spent meeting with each individual client.

Imagine hearing about a client without having access to either of these components. Let me describe Sarah to you. Sarah is a client I met with on June 26, and she is a mother of six who lives in a trailer park in a town outside of South Bend. Sarah’s car was completely totaled earlier that week, and she came to JIFFI looking for a down payment for a new vehicle. She is disabled and had not worked at a regular job in over a year. Her benefits are expiring in the next few months as well. Sarah was hoping for a “same-day loan,” a very rarely considered proposal.

Who are you imagining Sarah as right now? I’m sure at this point, any underwriting team’s mental state is somewhere between “skeptical” and "states-trusting-the-federal-government-under-the-Articles-of-Confederation." As a reader, you’re probably cautious of a loan as well – Sarah sounds like someone who will struggle to make repayments, and your intuition may even have you questioning her responsibility.   

Now let’s try to re-imagine Sarah with the full picture.

Where is Sarah coming from? JIFFI serves the greater South Bend community, where some progress is being made in the fight for financial inclusion, but many citizens still lack access to fair credit and the tools needed to navigate the complex financial world. Our client base primarily comes from this segment of the community – underbanked individuals who are looking for someone to help them as they recover and/or build from their situation. This means, however, that our clients come to us already striving for a better financial state, and want to use every opportunity they can to improve their lives. Before we even hear their unique stories, we know our clients possess zeal and determination. And what did I learn about Sarah’s personal situation after spending two hours with her?

Here’s a rewrite of my previous description, this time in a clearer and less jaded light:

This past Thursday, I met with Sarah, a mother of six college students/graduates who lives in a community outside of South Bend. Her children attend and have graduated from schools such as Indiana University, Valparaiso University, and Bluffton University. Unfortunately, Sarah’s car was completely totaled earlier this week while her daughter was driving, and after making doctor’s visits and talking with the insurance agency, she came to JIFFI looking for a down payment for a “new” car i.e. a used vehicle in good condition that she could afford. She had already spoken to two dealerships, and was in contact with a trusted mechanic to ensure that the vehicle she would purchase would be fairly priced and of solid quality. Sarah experienced PTSD at a former job, and had to take time off to recover and address her mental, emotional, and physical health. Sarah worked two separate three-month jobs as a way to prepare herself for returning to the workforce full-time, and she is starting a new job this upcoming week working as skilled labor. Sarah has planned ahead for expiring benefits, and is setting aside that money each month for emergencies. And why did she want a same-day loan? Because the next day she was driving to her daughter’s college orientation in Ohio.

Indubitably, your perception and understanding of Sarah and her situation has changed. Sarah was absolutely wonderful to meet and work with, not just as a client, but also as an individual. I don’t think it’s shocking to hear that getting to know someone changes how you view them, but I do think it’s telling that I could only encounter Sarah’s resilience, earnestness, and nurturing attitude after considering her background and spending extended time meeting with her. Client interaction is at the heart of JIFFI’s mission – “To enable our clients to unlock their full potential through affordable credit solutions, financial empowerment programs, and supportive relationships” – and it’s through our connections with clients that JIFFI can contribute to a better understanding of who the people experiencing poverty in our community are. I hope outstanding individuals such as Sarah can transform our responses to my "initial question" in this post, and affirm the excellence of all clients and all individuals in South Bend. 



Aaron Bode is a first-year associate and summer intern with JIFFI. He is an incoming sophomore originally from Avon, Indiana and is majoring in Economics and Applied Math.




Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Bode in the Bend

Sorry to disappoint, but this picture has almost nothing to 
do with this blog post, other than the fact that "bode" means 
"goat" in Portuguese and I needed an image for the blog.

But hey. Baby goats are pretty cute. 


I have a confession to make.

Since I started this internship in late May, I've spent hours writing about JIFFI, hours explaining JIFFI to family and friends, and hours trying to articulate JIFFI's message in any one of our numerous media platforms. I love talking about JIFFI stuff... 

But occasionally... I want to talk about me. 

A caveat: this blog post is still going to be about JIFFI. I know, making a big change, huh? However, I figure there are at least a few people out there curious as to what I'm doing on a daily basis. So, here goes.

I wake up in the morning feeling like P-Diddy. Wait, no, that's not right. Generally I get up at 8, hit the snooze button a couple times, and get started on work at 9. One of the unique things about this internship is I get to decide when I'm doing what -- since I have responsibilities for both SJC Bridges and JIFFI, and because much of my work for each organization is done online, I have ultimate flexibility when it comes to choosing where and when I'll be completing work. Thank goodness I have a year of college under my belt (i.e. supreme time management practice). 

When I'm busy meeting with clients, I usually find myself in the JIFFI office early in the morning and late in the afternoon. Because all of our clients are working or engaged with activities in the community, these times seem to work best. Clients also seem to appreciate when I go to meet them if there is an issue with making it to the South Bend Heritage Foundation (where our office is located). I've already made trips to a local library, two separate Goodwills, and Bridges to pick up repayments or meet with a client. When I'm not as inundated with calls and meetings, occasionally I'll do work from my apartment or on Notre Dame's campus. Changing my location seems to help especially when it comes to longer-term work that doesn't have an immediate end date. 

Now it's time for a brief segment I call 'Aaron's Analytics!' *catchy jingle plays*

Even something as simple as examining my schedule demonstrates various "nuggets of information" to consider for our organization as a whole. For example, if we know clients want to meet early and/or late in the work day, we know what times JIFFI associates may want to schedule classes or activities (when they have discretion, of course). Additionally, my empirical evidence suggests the importance of client comfort when it comes to the loan process. Reaching out to clients and making room for them, rather than adding another variable to their complex schedules, seems to make a huge difference in the way client interactions proceed. As for my own preference for varying my work spots, I think it verifies the value of examining how we approach the physical workplace. Check out these Forbes articles (and others) if you're curious about how business is changing the "workspace." 

*jingle plays again* [Aaron partially switches out of nerdy personality]

The time I spend at the Bridges office generally depends on when my "mentors" are present. Currently, I'm working with Amber Werner on preparing her incredible Financial Management Class material for this fall's session. I try to match my schedule at Bridges so we can communicate and work on the project's vision together, and then we can both complete our individual "assignments" when we're away/ working independently. (P.S. I'm hoping to write a future blog post about my experience specific to Bridges, but I want to have a little more material to show before I actually publish the post.)

Despite the fact that I'm my own timekeeper, my JIFFI work is really 9-5 every day. Yet, I try not to approach my internship as those "stale business hours" might suggest; rather, I hope that within the scope of the business day, I can be dynamic and efficient in all that I'm trying to achieve. And at the very least, know that I'm taking care of business



Keep an eye out for a (fairly lengthy) upcoming blog I've written for Lend for America -- they should be posting it soon!




Aaron Bode is a first-year associate and summer intern with JIFFI. He is an incoming sophomore originally from Avon, Indiana and is majoring in Economics and Applied Math. He once climbed Half Dome, he enjoys designing on Google SketchUp, and he has a strange fascination with the color orange.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

How do I know if I'm succeeding at this internship "thing"?

Because I’ve been performing a multitude of tasks for JIFFI this summer, it can often be difficult to determine how “successful” I am in my work. Does giving more loans mean I’m doing well? Should internal reorganization or external expansion contribute more to achievement? What about completing goals such as updating the blog often? (I will now put on the cone of shame.I could probably address “success” with philosophical or economic analysis, but I think I'll save that for listening to sermons and reading the New York Times on Sunday mornings. Instead, I'd rather approach the subject from what is central to our organization: the perspective of our clients.

Two weeks ago, I started my part-time internship with St. Joseph County Bridges out of Poverty, and have been performing a variety of tasks for their wonderful organization. The Executive Director for Bridges is Bonnie Bazata, an incredible woman who has been a guide for JIFFI over the past few years. At the close of my first week on the job, Bonnie and I sat and talked for an hour about the overwhelming complexity of poverty. We discussed the "advantages" that those in poverty often lack -- reliable transportation, solid health care, an intact family, access to good public education, safe neighborhoods, strong (if any) credit, etc. -- and what that means for someone coming to JIFFI or Bridges. The individuals we meet from this scarce world survive by developing a network where connections between people and resources help them navigate terribly-tangled problems.

Because our clients come to us from this relationship-first world, examining and responding to a segment of their lives without a "bigger picture" is impossible. In other words, our clients may come to us seeking a loan for X, but Y and Z (and every other variable) are always lurking in the background. By addressing high utilities, for example, we might uncover other debt payments a client is unable to make, and in trying to maximize this client's income, we might find that they couldn't maintain employment because of a bad knee and a beat-up 1989 Ford. 

Complicated scenarios such as these have challenged my judgment this June because success (for both client and JIFFI) becomes so arbitrary. Should this hypothetical situation disqualify someone from a JIFFI loan? It's a question I've asked myself dozens of times. I know we may be just another resource in a client's network. I know our loans will add repayments to a client's monthly expenses. I know fixing a single problem will lead to others. 

Is it impossible for us to succeed, or to measure success, when addressing a problem breeds ten more?

The answer?

"NooOOOooo." 

After extended reflection, this is what I've come to realize:
Our loans cannot wholly alleviate the stress of a situation, but they can be an important first step. For our clients, it's important to have a glimpse at what their future can hold, and a JIFFI loan gives them that opportunity -- a moment to breathe and look beyond the immediate worries of the world. In the same way, making progress with JIFFI gives me the opportunity to glimpse our future possibilities. Yes, taking a step forward on a project or idea means encountering dozens of new difficulties, but as I ask myself "What's next?" I can recognize that we are closer than ever to giving more loans and impacting more lives. Rather than aiming for absolute or ultimate success (which has led to alternating optimism and discouragement regarding my efforts), I can focus on the process of improvement as what I expect to accomplish.

I've already been able to experience quite a bit as intern (see the highlights below), but I hope my changing idea of success within JIFFI can make an even larger difference as I move into the middle portion of the internship. I would like to approach more of my independent projects from the viewpoint of clients, and use this perspective to better communicate JIFFI's message, process, and role to the Michiana community. I hope to improve JIFFI's internal work flow so a) divisions can access pertinent information easily, b) associates can feel engaged from their first day onward, and c) clients can have an overall smooth experience, where expectations are clear and each step of their time working with us is meaningful. Finally, I want to further open JIFFI to our supporting community; by sharing our stories, capabilities, and triumphs, I believe we can offer greater access and a deeper connection to our mission.

With these goals for success in place, here are the highlights of what I’ve been up to so far:
  • Launching our JIFFI Instagram account – give us a follow at @jiffiorg, or check out our pictures on Facebook or Twitter.
  • Turning our room at the South Bend Heritage Foundation into a working office. Goodbye disassembled furniture and tape residue, hello desk and this JIFFI sign:
  • Improving our phone account. Among other changes, we now have a nifty voicemail set up: First-time caller? You get our entire spiel before you leave your message. Current client or potential client? You hear the abridged version with a more pertinent response.
  • Reforming our process book. This is the file we use when meeting with clients, and we’re slimming it down to make our process easier to understand for clients and to promote efficient information sharing within JIFFI.
  • Meeting clients and MAKING LOANS! I met with over fifteen individuals over this time period, and we are now up to loan 18 (a huge testament to the enthusiasm and quality of our clients). 
One last note: For a future blog post, I'd love to do a "mailbag," where I answer questions about JIFFI, my experiences, or the diversity of my links from anyone who has perused our blog. (Yes, I realize this is not a novel idea. It'll still be fun.) Feel free to email me questions at jiffi.staff@gmail.com.






Aaron Bode is a first-year associate and summer intern with JIFFI. He is an incoming sophomore originally from Avon, Indiana and is majoring in Economics and Applied Math. His favorite animal is the capybara, he drinks waaaay too much Arnold Palmer, and he has NEVER been told "You grew an inch since the last time I saw you."

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Summer correspondence from your JIFFI Intern!

"Winter's a good time to stay in and cuddle, but put me in summer and I'll be a — happy intern!" 

Greetings to the extended JIFFI-verse! The sun is shining, the weather is warm, and I am no longer tied to a desk in the library cramming for finals. My name is Aaron Bode, and I will be working with JIFFI as a intern in the upcoming months. Today is my first day on the job, and I am thrilled to be starting my summer immersion. 

My first year with this group has been incredible; as a first-year associate, I loved working with clients and spreading JIFFI's message at the South Bend Center for the Homeless, and as a member of the fundraising division, I was enthused to see our Indiegogo campaign succeed. Yet, this internship isn't about what I've enjoyed or done so far -- it's about where JIFFI is headed next. 

Over the next ten weeks, I will spend time meeting with clients, working with SJC Bridges Out of Poverty, maintaining and updating internal information, and pursuing individual projects to further JIFFI's mission. These varying components will allow me to a) keep JIFFI functioning while ND is on summer break (always a good thing), b) personally experience and identify where our strengths and areas to improve are, and c) potentially uncover new opportunities for this extraordinary organization. 

In every action I take this summer, JIFFI's evolution will be at the center of my focus. I hope that through work exposure and mindful reflection, I can begin to address questions such as: How can we improve our service capabilities to better serve the everyday citizens of South Bend, Mishawaka, and surrounding communities? What can we do to increase our visibility? Can technology play a role in expanding our geographic footprint? What are the best ways to expand the scale of our operations? Should we pursue lobbying as a means to influence policy on lending matters? And: What are the keys to making JIFFI a truly sustainable business? 

I will be adding updates to the JIFFI blog throughout the summer, and look forward to what is to come. 



Aaron Bode is a first-year associate and summer intern with JIFFI. He is an incoming sophomore originally from Avon, Indiana and is majoring in Economics and Applied Math. He is a huge Indiana Pacers fan (RIP 2013-14 season), loves The West Wing, and is unashamed of the selfies he takes with his family's cats.