Platforms to Drive Scale in the Microenterprise Field

Platforms — defined as structures that provide shared tools or services that enhance the capacity or efficiency of players in an industry — have long been used in the private sector to drive standardization and growth. More than a decade ago, research conducted by the Economic Opportunities Program identified platforms as an important tool for driving scale in the community development industry and profiled a number of such platforms in the private and nonprofit sectors.

A decade later, several players have worked to build platforms that support scale and efficiency in the microenterprise and financial capability fields. These include:

  • Matching platforms that connect entrepreneurs directly with resources — such as MicroMentor, an online program that matches small business mentors with entrepreneurs aspiring to grow, and Kiva Zip, that matches entrepreneurs with lenders who invest in their businesses.
  • Product delivery platforms — such as the Mission Asset Fund’s social loan platform that can enable microenterprise organizations to expand their suite of products and services.
  • Operational support and back-office programs — such as Lift Fund’s Microloan Management System (MMS), a comprehensive, online system for loan origination.

Each of these platforms addresses a key area of need or potential growth in the field. Yet, most of them have struggled to reach the hoped-for levels of scale and use. And as they have sought to grow, most have had to adapt or fundamentally change their business models. These initial experiences should not suggest that the underlying concept is invalid. However, exploring and reflecting on and drawing lessons from experiences to date can drive greater effectiveness as these platforms continue to evolve and new ones are developed.

To generate that knowledge and fuel further innovation around platforms, FIELD conducted research aimed at documenting the experiences of the platforms that have been created to date, and eliciting lessons to guide future work. Our first results from this research are a set of lessons aimed at small business lenders that are considering using shared platforms to expand or strengthen their work.

In 2017, FIELD released a series of three papers, “The Promise of Shared Platforms for the Microenterprise Industry.” The papers in the series provide lessons on shared platforms for three audiences:

  1. organizations interested in using shared platforms,
  2. funders looking to support these organizations, and
  3. developers of shared platforms.

The reports are designed to help organizations, funders, and developers consider how shared platforms can be wielded to increase the impact of the microenterprise field, helping more people connect to economic opportunities through micro and small business ownership.

This research project is supported with a grant from the Sam’s Club Giving Program and the Northwest Area Foundation.