by Cole Folwell, Treasury intern
This year, Friendship Bridge made a strategic decision to have MicroFinanza Rating, a third-party microfinance rating agency, conduct social and institutional ratings for the purpose of gaining insight into our practices. Since its founding in 2000, MicroFinanza has conducted over 900 ratings on various microfinance institutions. Their rating process is extremely thorough and involves a desk review in addition to an on-site review of operations. The complete review process allows MicroFinanza to appropriately assess all aspects of Friendship Bridge’s institutional and social performance. The ratings provide an external look at Friendship Bridge, which can be used to understand strategic areas of opportunity, benchmark against peers, and provide impartial insight into operations.
Friendship Bridge’s previous rating was conducted in 2012, and we have used those results to grow and improve, which was confirmed by the most recent rating. The final social rating improved from a B minus in 2012 to an A minus in 2016. The new rating reflects good social performance management and client protection systems. It is also indicative that Friendship Bridge’s social mission is likely to be achieved. Similarly, the institutional rating improved from a B minus in 2012 to a BB plus in 2016. We hope to use the new ratings as we have in the past to improve and expand.
Friendship Bridge’s social rating was in general very positive and noted areas where we have excelled such as outreach, client protection and retention, and the quality of our non-financial services. We continue to reach out to areas with below-average national poverty levels and lower education rates. The rating notes that we treat our clients in these regions fairly and respectfully, which can be materially seen in our retention rate and client protection systems. This combined with Friendship Bridge’s quality non-financial services were all contributors to our strong social rating.
Friendship Bridge’s institutional rating noted our credit policy and methodology, internal controls, staff productivity, product offerings, and governance as strong components of the organization. The positive factors of the report were a result of well-formalized policies, quality management of non-performing loans, and geographical diversification of loan operations. Additionally, the ratings report found that the Board of Directors is well aligned with the mission and is well equipped to help Friendship Bridge achieve its objectives.
The report provided Friendship Bridge with additional information on areas where we have opportunities to grow as an organization. For the social rating, there were two primary opportunities – loan transparency and environmental responsibility.
Friendship Bridge uses a flat interest rate, primarily because our clients can easily understand it. Our clients are given a payment schedule that includes the interest and portion of the principal they will pay each month. As a result, the effective interest rate our clients pay each month is higher because they are amortizing the principle while paying interest. The practice is standard, simple, affordable, and clear to our clients. Yet, MicroFinanza would prefer that MFIs include the percentage of principle paid back each month in addition to the nominal interest rate when listing the loans. Mandatory disclosure of the effective interest rate a client would pay would be a tremendously progressive policy microfinance regulators should consider. The policy would ensure that all MFI loans are easily comparable for interested clients and there is increased transparency across the entire MFI landscape. Despite regulatory shortfalls, we as an organization believe that using this analysis of our lending transparency can greatly improve our operations.
The second area for improvement is Friendship Bridge’s commitment to environmental protection. MicroFinanza believes that Friendship Bridge should adopt an environmental policy that can be implemented in its lending activities. The quality of Friendship Bridge’s non-credit activities such as education and health services are high. Adding an environmental component to the organization’s work would certainly be a bonus to the already established and effective social work.
Friendship Bridge’s institutional rating found transparency, financial projections and targets, and reliance on donations and grants as areas of opportunity. By industry standards, our reliance on donations and grants suggests we have not reached full sustainability. However, non-credit activities such as education and health are integral parts of Friendship Bridge’s mission and the nature of the activities is inherently capital intensive. The result is an increased reliance on donations and grants.
Overall, while the MicroFinanza rating shows that Friendship Bridge has some areas of opportunity to grow, the ratings largely showed that the organization is on a very stable trajectory and continues to work towards its strong social mission.