This interview has been edited for clarity.
Grameen America is the fastest-growing microfinance organization in the United States, giving very small loans to women in poverty to build businesses. They have helped over 70,000 women and have a remarkable payback rate of 99.6%, according to Andrea Jung, their President and CEO.
In this segment from The Business of Giving, Ms. Andrea Jung, who previously served as the CEO of Avon Products for 12 years, discusses the importance of social capital and outlines how to take a nonprofit to scale. She also shares how she is going about making Grameen America a sustainable enterprise and what inspired her to move from the corporate world to the nonprofit sector.
Denver: The United States has been very reluctant to take ideas that have shown great promise in the developing world, and with a little bit of tweaking, see whether they just might work here. But one organization that has broken with that convention and with remarkable success is Grameen America. It is indeed a great pleasure to have with us this evening the President and CEO of Grameen America, Andrea Jung. Good evening, Andrea, and welcome to The Business of Giving.
Andrea: Good evening, Denver. It’s great to be here with you.
Denver: Give our listeners a brief overview of Grameen America — the mission and goals of the organization.
Andrea: Grameen America is, today, the fastest growing microfinance organization in the United States. We are in 11 cities. We have 18 branches and essentially, we give non-recourse, very small loans to women and their families in poverty. They have to use them to build entrepreneurial businesses, and we help them be banked. For the first time, many women are not banked in poverty in the United States, and we also help them build a credit score.
“It was founded several decades ago in Bangladesh on the very simple, but counter-intuitive principle that giving tiny loans to the very poorest women in the country would yield not only extraordinary payback, but 100% payback. It also really helps them to become entrepreneurs, to understand the power of taking control to run their own small businesses, and in fact to then become major contributors in the country.”
Denver: If I may, let’s circle back a little bit, Andrea, to Grameen Bank. How and where was it founded? And a little bit more on this concept of microfinance: what is it, and how does it work?
Andrea: Absolutely. As you opened just now, I think the most powerful thing is that it’s an incredible solution from what was the poorest country on earth….and is now finding its way to the richest nation and the richest cities of the richest nation, and having a profound impact…. because our poverty issues here in the United States are pretty dire as well, Denver. But let me just go back to the Grameen Bank. It was founded by Nobel Peace Laureate, Muhammad Yunus. It was founded several decades ago in Bangladesh on the very simple, but counter-intuitive principle that giving tiny loans to the very poorest women in the country would yield not only extraordinary payback, but 100% payback. It also really helps them to become entrepreneurs, to understand the power of taking control to run their own small businesses, and in fact to then become major contributors in the country.
Microfinance has burgeoned beyond Grameen in Bangladesh. There is a huge percent of the population after Yunus’ breakthrough model that are now affected or touched by microfinance. People being able to get access to capital which the traditional banking system in Bangladesh had closed out. The poor were not able to get any financial access to loans. They were not financially included — and particularly women. So, when you look at the power of this model to help Bangladesh, which again, as one of the poorest countries on earth, they’ve reached their millennium development goals in terms of halving poverty two years before their stated objectives.
Denver: That’s sensational.
Andrea: Yeah, it’s incredible and microfinance really was — in my mind — at the heart of the reason that country was able to do that.
“The lack of access in the form of capital market has been–in my mind– a real inhibitor to our ability to move people up and out of poverty in this country. And microfinancing, particularly Grameen America, has now proven to be a real solution, I believe.”
Denver: Well, this is a classic case of reverse innovation. And as we take it back to America, the number of women in this country who are living at or below the poverty level, it’s truly shocking. Why don’t you give us an idea of what those numbers look like.
Andrea: Shocking. It’s amazing to me that more Americans don’t understand the degree of the issue. Almost 42 million women are living in poverty, or on the brink of poverty, here in the United States of America in 2016, Denver. I mean that’s really astounding. That’s in 1 in 3 American women!
Denver: Holy cow.
Andrea: I’ll say that again, 1 in 3 American women today in 2016. So there are a disproportionate number of women actually who live in poverty. They are not participating in the financial mainstream. Nearly 50% of female-headed households across this country are underbanked or not banked at all. When we talk about financial inclusion, or unfortunately the lack of inclusion in the mainstream financial system — when I was speaking a minute ago about the issue in Bangladesh — but it’s also in our own country here. If it was difficult as a low-income minority or a low-income woman in the United States before 2008 and 2009, after the debt crisis –that certainly hit our country as well as the rest of the world– it’s almost impossible. So the cycle is pretty vicious because they’re essentially shut out, and nobody’s going to give them a loan. They can’t get a credit score, and their only opportunity would be terrible usury rates from payday lending. The lack of access in the formal capital market has been — in my mind — a real inhibitor to our ability to move people up and out of poverty in this country. And microfinancing, particularly Grameen America, has now proven to be a real solution, I believe.
Denver: And looking at business loans that are given through the formal banking system, how many of them are directed to women?
Andrea: I can give you another staggering statistic — $1 out of every $23.
Andrea: So, only 4% of loans to entrepreneurs in this country are given to female entrepreneurs.
Denver: That’s outrageous.
Andrea: It’s outrageous. And we understand the magnitude of the issue as well as the opportunity. On average, a woman starting a business does so with half as much capital as men. If you just look at the traditional market, even when they are applying for loans, they’ve got a much lower loan approval rate. Twenty percent more women are rejected. There’s a barrier — that would be an understatement. There’s a clear barrier here in the United States in this moment.
“We find a place within the community, after a serious amount of study, where there is a concentrated amount of poverty and a desire for entrepreneurship. We have our loan officers go into the community and find groups of women–they’re grouped in a social model that is the Grameen model of five women.”
Denver: Those are pretty powerful statistics. Well, why don’t you walk us through this process from a prospective client first hearing about and then coming to Grameen, how it works, and what the expectation and responsibilities are of each party?
Andrea: Sure, well, it is a very simple model. It’s nontraditional in the sense that we identified…I’ll just use the example to start of Jackson Heights, Queens…which is where Grameen America started in 2008. No one knew Grameen. They were not aware of the program and the Nobel Peace Prize-winning bank in Bangladesh. But they, in the community, were entrepreneurial, and they were lacking access to capital. So we opened our first branch in Jackson Heights. We first start by hiring loan officers… we call them center managers…and a branch manager. We find a place within the community, after a serious amount of study, where there is a concentrated amount of poverty and a desire for entrepreneurship. We have our loan officers go into the community and find groups of women–they’re grouped in a social model that is the Grameen model of five women.
They’re not doing the same business,, so this is not five women trying to do the same apparel shop. I may be doing a flower shop, and you may be having a food cart, but we are all interested in building our business and getting a loan from Grameen. We come together every week, once a week, with our loan officer and, on average, about another 25 other women. This has been the alchemy of Grameen and now Grameen America. It is that social capital and the peer mentorship, as well as the peer pressure, occurs every single week. Here they learn from each other, as well as pay that loan back every single week –this has been part of the reason that here in America, very similarly to Bangladesh, our loan repayment rates are 99.6%.
“An ATM and online lending formula is going spit you back out and reject you. But here is an organization, and not just any organization, but someone who cares, knows your children, knows what kind of business you want to grow, knows what your dreams are and is willing to give you an amount of capital.”
Denver: Any bank would kill for that.
Andrea: I have had extraordinarily, sophisticated bankers come and say to me, “How in the world are you getting this kind of repayment rate and what we would do, how we would kill, to get that repayment rate.” My answer is just really three elements of it –the first being the most important –and that is trust and social capital.
Andrea: That your loan officer and your relationship — she’s a life officer and a life coach to you. And she most importantly trusts you and is willing to give you a chance when the traditional system will not. An ATM and online lending formula is going spit you back out and reject you. But here is an organization, and not just any organization, but someone who cares, knows your children, knows what kind of business you want to grow, knows what your dreams are and is willing to give you an amount of capital. At Grameen America, the very first loan that you can get from us is no more than $1,500.
Andrea: And it is paid back every single week. In 26 weeks, so in about 6 months, our average Grameen borrower pays that back. As I said, most of them pay it back 100%. And then they are eligible for another loan and a bigger loan in fact. And in that time, if they pay that loan back over those 6 months, they can establish the first time ever credit score.
Denver: Oh, wow.
Andrea: Which is incredible and a very interesting and different and powerful aspect of our program versus Bangladesh or some of the other emerging markets. Credit here in the United States is critical for everybody including women, including those in poverty. The average credit score is about 670. That’s for 6 months of perfect repayment history, and teaching them the power of a perfect credit score like that is a very profound impact and part of the program.
“I think it’s an amazing part of the magic of Grameen that Yunus was able to not only discover in the human dynamic, but really celebrate, the fact that the peer dynamic and social capital were as important to self confidence, to learning, to loyalty, to respect as anything else.”
Denver: Yeah, very interesting high touch model you have. And it always seems to me that Grameen was out ahead about this whole dynamic of peer pressure and peer mentoring, and the interaction that must go on amongst these 5 women every week. Now there is a body of research beginning to emerge around how important this is– but you really saw that first.
Andrea: Yeah, I think it’s an amazing part of the magic of Grameen that Yunus was able to not only discover in the human dynamic, but really celebrate, the fact that the peer dynamic and social capital were as important to self confidence, to learning, to loyalty, to respect as anything else. I submit that if I gave the very same member a larger loan with no interaction with peers and/or with the loan officer, not only would the repayment rate not be the same, but more importantly I think the success of the business and her own growth would not be the same either. Not just financially but all aspects, up and out of poverty, would have been different. Entrepreneurship is difficult. It’s difficult for any of us. If you’re doing it for the first time–knowing someone else who’s doing it too –even if it’s a food business– and you may be doing a small shop selling other kinds of products — there is mentorship and also the pressure not to let each other down.
Denver: That’s right.
Andrea: It is a very powerful one. It is a very powerful human dynamic.
Denver: You have 70,000 of these women getting together every week, as you just said, usually on Tuesday morning. I would imagine that many of them could use help in other parts of their lives. Are you ever tempted to broaden this forum, to address those other issues beyond just the business of Grameen America?
Andrea: Absolutely, and we’re doing it very carefully because we now know after eight years and tens and tens of thousands of success stories that our members want more. Obviously, we love the fact the we have sort of perfected the ability to disperse and regain the payments from loan capital, establish credit scores, and help them get their first time bank accounts. But there are many other things that they need and want in their businesses and in their lives. I think there is the ability to partner with other organizations, other NGOs, and the city of New York, for example. We are really starting to partner, so that selected numbers of our members who have bigger businesses could come together to take advantage of education, tax planning, technical training, and other programs that they may need.
Denver: Yeah, well some of these micro businesses, I would imagine, are starting to become small businesses.
Andrea: Absolutely. As a matter of fact, we are introducing at the end of the summer a larger size business expansion loan. Our average loans now are $2,300. The first time loan is only $1,500. But several of our members now –40% of them in New York I think — have been able to get a $5,000 loan or above. And there are those who need $7,500 and $10,000 loans when their businesses are really moving from micro to small. There’s a big void in that area, and I think that we, now as a mature organization going into our 9th and 10th year, want to fill that void at that $10,000 to $20,000 level. Those are burgeoning businesses. And they are employing!
And that’s one of the things that we do measure. Obviously, in the earliest loan cycle, most of our members are self-employed. But when we start looking at a couple years later, as those businesses mature, they’re moving out of the home; they’re renting storefronts; they’re employing others to help them, such as a sales person. I met a woman the other day who’s got three employees. So they’re not only obviously contributing in helping their own financial wherewithal, they’re creating jobs in the community which is very, very powerful.
Denver: Super. Speaking of your members, give us an idea about what your typical member might be in terms of age, income level and so on.
Andrea: We give loans to women in poverty …with poverty nationally being defined as in the low $20,000s for a household of four. Most of our members are significantly below that when they come to us, so you can have members whose household income is $15,000 or $16,000. A good percent of them are single, female-headed households. I think our average age is in the low 40s, but averages are always misleading. I’ve met many members who are in their 60s and many members who are in their 20s.
They range in the kind of businesses they do. About 20% are doing some kind of food services such as running their own catering businesses. We have a fantastic member out in Los Angeles who has a bakery — she’s got employees and is probably the most popular bakery in East LA.
We’ve got members who are doing cleaning services. I love the story of one of our members who was actually cleaning houses and was able to see how much people were charging for professional carpet cleaning. She used her $1,500 loan and bought a carpet cleaning machine. She began to charge up, and today she’s actually no longer cleaning. She’s now in the rental equipment business and renting machines to others who clean in the communities. So, that is the American dream.
I have another member, her name is Susanna, and she’s been a member of ours in Jackson Heights since 2011. She’s taken out, probably over the course of those years, over $50,000 worth of loans. She’s got a very successful hair salon today. She’s employing many people, and she just became a US citizen. She got, on one single day, a $10,000 loan and her US citizenship. She said it really was one of the best days in her life.
Denver: How sweet is that.
Andrea: How sweet is that. It doesn’t get better than that.
Denver: So, you are based in New York, and Grameen America cut its teeth in New York. So give us a look at poverty among women in New York City– how many of those you serve, and what your goals and aspirations are for this region.
“One of our goals is to make this a scaled movement and a scaled solution. There are many nonprofits–and the numbers are nice–and if you serve a few women, it’s a few women more that benefit. There’s no nonprofit that doesn’t do good. But scale and true material impact is another story.”
Andrea: Yes, we’re proudly New York-based and feel that our founding branch and home is New York City. We wanted to have the proof of concept. We wanted to see the pilot really work in New York before we started expanding to other cities. The numbers that I mentioned earlier, which are obviously national numbers unfortunately, are just as bad in New York City. So we’re not exempt from that right here in our own backyard. Women’s poverty in New York City needs to be addressed. There are 1 million women living in poverty!
Denver: One million women.
Andrea: Forty percent of female-headed households in New York are impoverished. We’ve reached over 40,000 women and their families in the boroughs of New York. So, if you think about that, it’s not that far from 100,000– which would be 10% of women in poverty. So, we feel like..
Denver: And that’s what your goal is?
Andrea: At least. But one of the things that I feel proud about is that that’s a scaled organization. One of our goals is to make this a scaled movement and a scaled solution. There are many nonprofits — and the numbers are nice — and if you serve a few women, that’s a few women more that benefit. There’s no nonprofit that doesn’t do good. But scale and true material impact is another story. And if we think about the fact that we could, in short order, touch 1 out of 10 women in poverty in New York City, that’s pretty lofty. That’s no longer a small nonprofit.
Andrea: That is a fairly huge and sizeable impact. So New York is a very very important community to us. Seven of our 18 branches are in New York, We have two in Queens, two in Brooklyn. We’re in the Bronx. We’re in Harlem. We feel deeply that our ability to help the issue here in New York City is critical. And here we are in the middle of the financial capital of the world, and getting a loan here in New York is just as impossible as it is in Charlotte, North Carolina. And it’s unacceptable. It really is. So our belief and our commitment is that we want to get to the women in these communities. If I took you to the neighborhoods where we are, every other store front…somebody has received a Grameen loan, and that is why they’re burgeoning. And you would say, this is how we’re gonna get New York City back on its feet.
Denver: Yeah, you’re absolutely right.
Andrea: This is how we’re going to continue to grow the economy right here in our boroughs.
“We are a committed social enterprise. We don’t take a profit. We make a profit, but we put that profit right back in. So any extra dollar we make goes to another loan for another woman, and somebody else can benefit in the community.”
Denver: I know how deeply you feel about scale and I know that you don’t really think you can impact an issue unless you achieve it. By the same token, you also know that you can’t really do that if the organization is almost wholly dependent on philanthropic income… which takes me to Grameen America. You are a bit of a hybrid, I guess. Explain to our listeners how your business model works and the advantages that you see with it.
Andrea: Absolutely. I’m a big believer, as is Muhammad Yunus, our founder, that it is nearly impossible to have scale unless you have sustainability– meaning an economic model that can actually self-sustain over time. The complete dependence on philanthropy, while wonderful and we’re hugely grateful, — for us to be truly national and to be in every city that we need to be and then serve every neighborhood — it’s a lofty thought if it’s 100% dependent on philanthropic gifts. Grameen America does have a very unique hybrid proof point now that four of our branches…..in fact in the New York area, are self-sustainable.
Andrea: Our first branch, which was our 2008 Jackson Heights branch, became self-sustainable at the end of 2013, but three other branches in the New York area are already sustainable in 2016– which basically says that we do have a formula that works. It takes around five years, about 5,000 members per branch, and a portfolio of about $5 million.
Five, five and five kind of is the magic. And then the interest income on the loans that are outstanding begins to break even with and then offset the cost of running the program. We are a committed social enterprise. We don’t take a profit. We make a profit, but we put that profit right back in. So any extra dollar we make goes to another loan for another woman, and somebody else can benefit in the community. That social enterprise, social business — people have different nomenclatures for it– but in our terminology– as a social business, we actually have an economic model that breaks even and makes a profit. That profit is derived and plowed back into the business. It’s a non-dividend model. It would say that if we continued on and didn’t expand the program, very shortly we could completely self-sustain.
The beauty is we want to continue to expand, so there will always be a balance of philanthropy because we do need what I’ll call “venture philanthropy” in the first few years. If we go to Miami, if we go to Detroit, if we go to Philadelphia, pick again impoverished neighborhoods around this country where we know this model works now… It’s going to take some philanthropy early on, but overtime our members trust us and want to stay with us. This model has 18 branches and 8 years of proof point. They’re getting bigger loans and they’re paying them all back. We’ve got the economics to be this hybrid, as you call it, where we are in fact profitable in half of our enterprises.
Denver: That’s fantastic. And where you go, I think you’ve also changed that a little bit. I think traditional philanthropy sometimes went where the money was, but you’ve really taken a much more business-like approach to it.
Andrea: I think if you’re going to run a social business, you’re still a business. So you have to make decisions especially if you want a scale that makes sense. We took a look and a lens to say: “This is where there are women over 18, unbanked, unemployed. This is where the most concentrated areas of poverty are and the need for entrepreneurship is underserved.” I looked at it from the member point of view as opposed to who has x amount of million dollars and wants to fund the branch in their city.
Denver: That’s exactly right. The tail wagging the dog is so often the case.
Andrea: It is. It’s tempting. Certainly when you open a national scaled program, and you are dependent on philanthropy, it’s tempting sometimes to just say, “Somebody wants to bring this tiny neighborhood and has the wherewithal to do it.” And of course, there’s going to be an element of productive, mission-based help that’s given. But if we really study it from a business lens, it’s about choices and resources in terms of the talent base in the organization. How fast will they get to sustainability? We’re always really trying to balance that. We have taken on a greater business lens and focused on decisions about what cities we want to open in.
Denver: Well, you only have so much bandwidth, so you have to make those choices.
Andrea: Like any other organization– you’ve got to prioritize your bandwidth.
“Many people think Avon is about “Ding-dong, selling some lipstick and some skincare.” But the founding principle of Avon is actually giving the first-time opportunity for women– before they could vote– to earn independent income apart from their family, their husbands. Go out and sell.”
Denver: That’s exactly right. Well, speaking of business, you bring that acumen to this job, You became the CEO of Avon in 1999. I think you were the 3rd woman to lead a Fortune 500 company at that time. You were there for a dozen years or so, so what prompted you, Andrea, to take this job at Grameen America? And how did your experience as a CEO of Avon help you prepare for it?
Andrea: It’s a funny thing, Denver, because many people say, “Wow, you transitioned from Avon to Grameen America, that’s a big change.” There are so many similarities, and I think if you understand Avon and then Grameen America, the dots do link pretty easily. Yes, I spent 20 years at Avon. It was a fantastic opportunity. Avon was a company that was founded 34 years before women could vote on the very simple principle that women should be allowed to be in the workforce. Many people think Avon is about “Ding-dong, selling some lipstick and some skincare.” But the founding principle of Avon was actually giving the first- time opportunity for women– before they could vote– to earn independent income apart from their family, their husbands. Go out and sell. So it was radical at the time.
Denver: Radical idea! 1886.
Andrea: A radical idea for 1886. And part of the founding DNA though was about running your own business, learning tools, educating women on how they could be economically independent, self-sufficient, and build their self-confidence through entrepreneurship. It’s been very much what Avon was about, and I had a huge passion for that.
And I saw it, Denver, in 100+ countries all over the world–not exactly the same demographic as our Grameen borrowers and the Grameen philosophy–they are defined around poverty…those in deepest need. But Avon representatives and salespeople were lower-income certainly, and they found a first-time opportunity to improve their lives. Their stories and the impact of making some money, and I saw that most of the Avon representatives were women. I saw when women were economically-advantaged or given the opportunity to be independent, there was a direct linkage to their investment in their education and in education for their children and health.
I think it’s a proven thing that women will certainly take an economic advantage and make sure that it has huge positive implications for the family as well as the community. So, I’ve been a huge believer in that and I believe that across all the countries…
Denver: Your entire life as a matter of fact.
Andrea: Yeah, it’s my entire life as a matter of fact. To go back a little bit, most people don’t know my grandmother came from China. She was the recipient of not a Grameen, but an informal micro loan. And started a salon herself. Couldn’t speak a word of English. My father went to M.I.T., Here I am. I’ve had huge advantages and opportunities. So just in two generations…a full circle story…
Denver: Pretty nice story!
Andrea: …for me, but I’m a big believer obviously, personally and professionally, in the power of economic opportunity for women — microfinance. I had always been an admirer of microfinance. I had met Muhammad Yunus after he and the Grameen Bank won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2006. I myself had been more of a believer that it was a great powerful economic solution in the emerging world, in Bangladesh, in India, in Africa. I had no idea that it could be the kind of power and solution in the developed world and nations like the United States.
I am a proud American. I am a child of immigrants. I see the power of a little bit of loan capital or income for women, and I’ve seen this for decades now. I think it changes families; it changes communities; and it changes countries. So I felt like this was… not only a great transition, but if I– who’ve had the experience to scale organizations… and the business experience for all these decades–if someone like me wasn’t going to bring those experiences and skills to a non-profit, albeit hybrid social business…. If not me, then who?
Denver: Yeah, absolutely! Well, number one, I can’t see you in a traditional nonprofit. I really do see you in this middle ground– in terms of really being between the two worlds of the nonprofit world and the for profit world. And it just seems that it’s a space where organizations can really stay true to their mission, because they don’t have to answer to the outside forces to the extent that they do in the other two worlds.
Andrea: Absolutely. I think if you look at the philosophy of social businesses and social enterprises, this is one of the largest real examples of proven social enterprise going right. I can’t see myself working on either side again because I really believe that if businesses don’t solve societal issues…we can wait a long time for governments… And I’ve been there in the for profit sector, and that was a phenomenal experience. But the tug is shareholders and profits.
Denver: That’s right. Or donors, as you sort of alluded to before…
Andrea: Or donors on the other side. It is hard to have that compass due north and be able to march that way unless you have that definitive construct–governance and mission as a social business. You’ve got able to make your own income, or you are going to be…
Andrea: …marginalized and rightly so. If I’m a donor and I’m giving you all the money, I want a decision in the path of the organization. I understand that… My feeling was a traditional, typical non-profit. It would have been terrific to be on the board or write a check, but to actually spend my time and energy… For me, I’m a businesswoman, I have to do it in a business… way.
Denver: Well, you certainly are paying it forward. If people want to learn more about Grameen America or help support this very cool work you’re doing, where would they go?
Andrea: grameenamerica.org. We have a robust site. I would just say this… I, myself, was asking and have been asked more times than not: “What can $1,500 do? In America?” Seems like a small amount. I have 70,000 stories, and growing, of the extraordinary impact of $1,500. We’re launching a campaign this Fall, and we are trying to raise many $1,500 gifts…
Denver: It’s a nice idea.
Andrea: …because they are real, and they fuel Susannas that I talked to you about… Or Marias that I’ve talked to you about. And that $1,500… Think about this…will be repaid in six months. And then that same $1,500 will fuel another entrepreneur. And then another and another… So think of it this way: for $1,500 gift, you are funding two American entrepreneurs every single year in perpetuity, because the model works. So the return is extraordinary.
Denver: It sure is.
Andrea: My opinion: It’s the best $1,500 philanthropic gift– in terms of actual, long-term impact that one can make.
Denver: Well, that’s just about the best virtuous circle that I’ve ever heard.
Andrea: Yeah, it is an unusual and powerful virtuous circle…
Denver: Well, Andrea Jung… the President & CEO of Grameen America, not only is the work you’re doing incredibly important, and I am sure our listeners can feel just how purpose-driven you are…..but the success of this enterprise could help inform many of the kinds of business models that will succeed in the 21st century to tackle our most vexing social problems. Thanks for being with us tonight; it was a real pleasure having you on the program…
Andrea: It’s great to be with you. Thanks for having me.
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