An Open Letter About Kiva and Strathmore

Subject: An Open Letter About Kiva and Strathmore
From: Matt Flannery
Date: 9 Mar 2015

Dear Kiva Community,

If you’re a part of Kiva’s lending team community, chances are you’ve either seen or taken part in a conversation about the loans that Strathmore University recently posted to the Kiva website. We're listening. In this blog post, we hope to address a lot of the issues that have been raised and provide answers to many of the questions we've been seeing.

If this is new to you, here’s a brief recap: A couple months ago, one of our Field Partners, Strathmore University, posted a number of loans to cover full tuitions for students from low-income regions in Kenya who could not otherwise afford higher education. Soon thereafter, many lenders raised concerns because Strathmore University was founded -- as the school describes it -- with “inspiration and encouragement from Saint Josemaria Escriva” (founder of Opus Dei--an institution of the Catholic Church) and, as noted on its website, the school is a "Corporate Undertaking of Opus Dei.”

Lenders have been worried specifically because Opus Dei has a reputation for being very conservative, and a staunch opponent of LGBT rights. As evidence of this, several community members shared an editorial and guest lecture by Strathmore’s chaplain, Father Joe Babendreier, in which he states that homosexual acts are a sin. The biggest concern is that these views are being actively promoted in the curriculum and/or student life at Strathmore.

I speak on behalf of the entire Kiva team when I say that we’re very thankful to our lending community for sharing their views, along with this editorial and video. We also appreciate the work our lenders have put into learning more about Strathmore and helping us better understand these issues. Lender feedback is an incredibly important part of our work, and your voiced concerns are ultimately helping us improve Kiva as an organization. Thank you for that.

I do also want to take a moment to address the tone of the dialogue around this partnership. It’s worth reiterating that one of our core organizational values is transparency, so we have a deep appreciation for any lenders that voice concerns. But we also feel it’s imperative to keep this conversation healthy and constructive. Some posts have made assumptions and inaccurate comments about Kiva employees and their ability to effectively do their jobs. This is not constructive or conducive to working together to make the world a better place. As with all of our basic or full due-diligence Field Partners, the decision to work with Strathmore University involved our entire regional team and was approved by our Investment Committee--not just one person. We stand by our employees and the work they do to maximize the impact of your capital.

That said, on a personal level, I share a lot of the same concerns aired by our lenders. The type of anti-gay rhetoric expressed by Strathmore’s chaplain is very disheartening. We understand the damage and pain that it can cause, and I assure you, with no reservations, that the views expressed do not reflect any of our beliefs or Kiva’s organizational values.

This is what we do believe: That providing safe, affordable access to capital to those in need helps people create better lives for themselves and their families. At the core, Kiva is trying to do good in different regions and cultural contexts -- even when some of the values of a culture run counter to our own.

The unfortunate reality is that LGBT rights have a very long way to go in Africa. In seeking out a top-tier higher education partner in Kenya, we didn’t find one that was pro-LGBT. That’s unfortunately not surprising since homosexual acts are illegal in Kenya. Even as recently as 2007, 96% of Kenyans polled said "Homosexuality is a way of life that should not be accepted by society."

Obviously, we don’t support or encourage these views or policies. But, when we evaluate countries to work in and organizations to partner with, it’s natural that not all of our values and beliefs will align perfectly. We have to look at the full package to determine the difference Kiva can make. Ultimately, our Partnerships team and Investment Committee must make decisions by looking at the core purpose of an organization’s programs and how Kiva lenders’ funding can benefit people who are financially or socially excluded. Strathmore students are an ideal example. They’re bright kids with limitless potential, but would never have the chance to realize it without Kiva lenders who choose to support them.

Tuition loans outside the U.S. are rare. There are precious few partners willing to fund tuition loans because of the long repayment terms and grace periods while the student is in school. For too many young people, no matter how gifted they are or how hard they work, access to a college education isn’t an option because they don’t have the resources. At Kiva, we believe that access to education is where economic advancement begins. There’s no better weapon against poverty. That's why we’re also working to get loans to students in Colombia, Indonesia, and South Africa in addition to Kenya.

Why Strathmore? It’s one of the leading private chartered universities in Kenya, and is a privately-owned, not-for-profit institution. In addition to offering top-notch classes, curricula and programming, Strathmore was also that rare school that wanted to reach out to low-income students -- that wanted to expand opportunity. That’s why Kiva chose to work with them. In a country where demand for education far outweighs supply, it’s unusual to find a university interested in getting creative to help poorer students -- especially when their wealthy peers are willing and eager to pay. Kiva funding reserves these spots so lower-income students have a chance at them. And once they’re there, they have an even bigger chance to break the cycle of poverty for their families and communities.

While these are the reasons we were so excited to partner with Strathmore University, I also want to make sure to address the two big questions we continue to hear from lenders: “What is Opus Dei’s involvement with Strathmore?” and “Are they indoctrinating the future leaders of Kenya with hate speech?”

Following recent lender comments, Kiva’s Partnerships team thoroughly investigated Strathmore’s practices, student life, and more. We found no evidence of indoctrination practices. The core of Strathmore’s educational program is not religious. Its goal is to provide students with a strong, broad-base education to help them find good jobs and achieve their dreams. In fact, the school’s mission statement is “to provide all round quality education in an atmosphere of freedom and responsibility; excellence in teaching, research and scholarship; ethical and social development; and service to society.”

With respect to student life, Strathmore University does not consider religion in its admissions process. There is also no mandatory religious requirement and there are no religion classes even offered at the school. (See documents linked below)

The closest thing the school has is a business ethics class, so we sat in and listened. One of the chief concerns about Opus Dei is that it doesn’t allow freedom of conscience, so we wondered whether that would come up. Not only did we not see the propagation of any hateful ideology, but the professor also encouraged everyone to make up their own minds, and similarly promoted divergent opinions with the aim to create students who are independent, logical, critical thinkers. Of course we can’t sit in on all of their classes, and we also understand that there may be things said in some classes that we don’t agree with, but the overall takeaway is that everything we’ve observed does not point to systematic indoctrination of students.

During our visit we also found that there were many different religions represented in the student body. They have a chapel on campus, as well as a Muslim prayer room. There’s no requirement to attend religious services, and if all students actually wanted to attend mass, they wouldn’t be able to, as the chapel seats about 100 people (with a student body of 5,000).

Having said that, we don’t intend to portray Strathmore University as a place that’s free from all forms of hate speech. The fact that the school is located in Kenya means that given the cultural context we described earlier, it’s likely that some individuals on campus, including Strathmore staff, might hold anti-LGBT viewpoints or beliefs (as we saw in the guest lecture video). Keep in mind that similar hate speech could be heard on campuses anywhere in the U.S. No institution that invites a diverse community to live and work together can be completely free of unfortunate comments and clashes in culture.

But what we have confirmed is that Opus Dei is distinct from Strathmore’s daily operations. It isn’t involved in curriculum development, and anti-LGBT views don’t have any place in the core mission of the university or the classes it offers. Considering all of these facts, along with the great social impact we believe these loans are having in the lives of Kenyan students, we will continue this partnership and give lenders the choice to support future students.

That said, we have learned a lot and plan to manage things differently next time around. To start, we know that we should have been much more mindful of Strathmore’s affiliation with Opus Dei and made that more clear on the school’s partner page. We’ve since added this information to the first paragraph. Please note, we’ve also decided to add text to all future Strathmore University loans highlighting the school’s affiliation with Opus Dei.

Another area of great learning for us was surrounding our marketing strategy for these loans. While we plan to continue to highlight different partners and loans that we feel are doing great things, it's clear from all the negative comments we've received that our efforts were too forceful. This is a huge opportunity for us to learn and work to improve future emails.

On the operational side of things, we’ve also asked Strathmore to spread out their loan postings for these tuition loans next year. We originally hoped that these loans would fundraise over the span of 2-3 months, but with delays in the process of gathering loan information and developing a robust loan program with a semester start date of July 1, their posting was unfortunately compressed to a single month this year.

In addition, we know that we should have done a better job at being prompt in our responses and formal communication about areas of deep lender concern. If you've been a part of the conversations happening on team message boards and feel as though your voices were being ignored, I speak on behalf of the entire team in saying that we're truly sorry. It was important for us to conduct a thorough investigation with a visit to this partner, and ultimately present a thoughtful and educated response -- and that process simply took some time. That said, we will absolutely try to be more timely with any future responses.

I also want to recognize a perceived conflict of interest since we have an office in Strathmore's business school. To clarify, Kiva's funding relationship with Strathmore is completely separate from our office space contract. We signed a lease with a separate department at Strathmore, paying market rates for rent after a thorough review of various options in Nairobi. And if this partnership were to end tomorrow or if none of their loans were funded, our office lease wouldn't be affected. We do, however, understand how having the office space could be perceived as a conflict of interest in this type of situation, and we should have been more forthcoming about this in our marketing emails.

Having acknowledged that, Kiva is fundamentally interested in doing good where and how we can. In this case, it’s about supporting students in Kenya and other countries who, without loans from lenders like you could not attend university.

Students like Lilian, a brilliant, budding computer scientist who grew up in the Masai territory near Narok, Kenya. Like so many bright students, she comes from a family that cannot afford to pay tuition. Her story, like so many millions of others around the globe, typically ends with dreams dashed. But many of you in the Kiva community came to the rescue, offering an 11-year student loan, which was funded in less than 24 hours. You can imagine the suspense Lilian felt as she watched her future change so suddenly, playing out on a computer screen. And the hope she feels now, knowing that a community of people from around the world believe in her potential. If you have a few minutes, you can see Lillian tell her story here.

A few members of the Kiva team recently had the chance to have lunch with Lilian and are happy to report that she is taking full advantage of the opportunity provided by those Kiva lenders who chose to support her.

It's hard to deny the opportunity that Kiva loans provide to students like Lilian. It’s also difficult to deny that the opportunity provided to these students pains and angers some Kiva lenders because of Strathmore's connection to Opus Dei. There is no easy decision here. What we decided was to continue this partnership to do good where and how we can and to provide lenders with all the information they need to make informed decisions. We understand that some of you may disagree and we completely respect that. At the core, I believe we’re all in this together, and we hope you’ll come on this journey with us as we learn from you, learn from experience, and learn how to help even more people around the world with life-changing loans.

Thank you for your consideration,

Matt Flannery
CEO, Kiva