Sometimes all it takes is a little bit of faith for a struggling individual to finally find success. With MicroGrants, Joe Selvaggio is helping those he calls "people of potential" bridge the gap to their goals.
MicroGrants was founded in 2006, the same year that Mohammed Yunus won the Nobel Prize for pioneering a system of microloans to those in need with his Grameen Bank. The key distinction of MicroGrants, however, is that the program gives out $1,000 grants, rather than loans.
"Poor people have too much debt," Joe said. "It's too risky for them to put their own skin in the game."
Instead, MicroGrants gives the money outright to applicants who can submit their bid through twelve partner organizations in Minneapolis, Minnesota, where they are based. Assisting people in everything from buying the supplies they need to get a business running, to helping pay for educational training courses, or even to upgrade a vehicle for better transportation to work.
Take Shegitu: as an immigrant from Ethiopia, Shegitu found her way into a job, while also working at non-profits to help single mothers find jobs. Discovering that many of the women she met did not have the basic skills to find employment, she decided to start her own small cleaning business, though she lacked the money for a location or supplies. With her MicroGrant, Shegitu was able not only to launch her business, but currently employs 38 women while running several non-profits on the side to benefit women in need of assistance.
Joe, 73, has spent the past forty years dedicated to closing the gap between the wealthy and the poor. After leaving the Catholic ministry for a career in social justice, he founded the Project for Pride in Living and the One Percent Club. The first assists the impoverished to become self-sufficient through housing, employment training, education, and support services. The second encourages the wealthy to donate 1 percent of their net worth or 5 percent of their annual income each year to the charity of their choice.
According to Joe, his faith in the potential for all people to succeed, given the chance, stems from his childhood in Chicago as the child of Italian immigrants.
"It's that immigrant mentality--work hard and make more money, and get better jobs, more education..." he said. MicroGrants lets their grantees get the first foot off the ground so they can work to support themselves.
MicroGrants operates on a donation-based budget that has reached about $500,000 each year, allowing them to give out one or two loans each week. Joe credits the easy logic of reciprocity for the generosity that has allowed the organization to continue on.
"The heart message is stronger than the head--'I was helped by somebody, why not take a chance and help somebody?'" he said. "It's a simple concept: people launch themselves into self sufficiency, it's a very easy thing to understand."
Certainly, Joe has made a life of communicating that concept to others. Assigned to a parish in an inner city in Minnesota, he could not ignore his desire to help the poor become more affluent, and so left priesthood to pursue his passion. After a few years working to sell mutual funds, he realized that there were enough people willing to give their money to the less-fortunate that he could focus solely on administrating the exchange between givers and receivers.
Though Joe hopes that MicroGrants will go nationwide, or at least branch out to other states soon, he has only fond words for his longtime home, the Twin Cities.
"It's a very good culture of giving here in Minneapolis," he said. "There are good, generous, compassionate people here."
Joe, who will be 74 soon, has not wearied of his work in the past forty years.
"I am still excited about this stuff, I never get tired of it," he said. "Seeing people really improve their lives and become self-sufficient is universally accepted--to see people working and making their own way in life is a bridge between the rich and the poor."
For more, visit our Third World America section.