Messages in Bottles

By Liz Nagle, K10 Armenia

I work for Kiva. Not just in the (very real) sense that, like all Kiva Fellows, I am doing important on-the-ground work with Kiva Field Partners that extends the reach of Kiva’s small and extremely dedicated staff—but also in the standard sense: I get a monthly paycheck from Kiva.

So why did I decide to cut my paycheck in half and devote the rest of my hours to working as a Kiva Fellow, for free?

In my normal life, and part-time while I’m here in Armenia, I manage Kiva’s Editing Team, a corps of about one hundred volunteer editors who review every single loan posted to in English. That’s currently more than five thousand loans a month, posted by Kiva Field Partners on five continents.

The job of Kiva’s editors is to check the language and details of loan descriptions written in English, mainly by non-native speakers, and to flag the loan for additional review if they see anything that doesn’t add up. They correct grammatical errors and delicately untangle confusing language, but they are also charged with keeping the ‘voice’ of the original text intact.

Complicating their task, there is no channel of communication with the writers of the loan descriptions. Loan profiles flow in one direction, from the Field Partner to the Editing Team, each one arriving like a message in a bottle. If a detail is ambiguous, the editor must do his or her best to puzzle out the meaning, often through extensive online research and collaboration with other editors who might have seen similar loans. There is no option of calling back to the foreign shore from which the message was sent.

I offer all this background about the work of the Editing Team not only because I want to recognize their unsung efforts (which I certainly do), but also to show that even for this team of volunteers who are intimately involved with the entrepreneurs’ stories you see on—and for me, as their coordinator—the source of these stories can seem a bit mysterious.

Kiva entrepreneurs’ stories and photos are the lifeblood of the Kiva model. They are the content that makes Kiva’s concept “sticky.” But what may not be obvious to Kiva’s supporters (including myself, a Kiva “insider”) is where all this content comes from. Sure, it’s prepared by Kiva’s Field Partners… but who’s really doing the work, and how? How many people does it take to gather the information, take the picture, write up the loan description, and upload the profile to Kiva? What are the challenges involved in preparing all this content just for Kiva? What do the people responsible for all this work know about their Kiva “audience”? In short, who are the real authors of these messages, and what does Kiva look like from their shore?

After a year of working for Kiva, reading the Fellows Blog, and asking questions of Kiva’s Partnerships staff, I had a vague sense of who the Field Partners were and how they operated, but what I really wanted was to meet some of the people involved and see things from their perspective.

I got my wish, and I’m now here in Armenia as a “roaming” Kiva Fellow, working with one MFI that has been posting great content to Kiva for six months and with two others that are on the verge of posting for the very first time. In theory, I am the “expert” on entrepreneur profiles, here to help these Field Partners craft their messages as efficiently and effectively as possible. In truth, though, I am the lucky visitor who gets to hear the whole story behind each bottled message and to witness the good faith with which that message is bottled and sent. And that, to my mind, is well worth half a paycheck.

If you’re interested in volunteering with Kiva as an editor, translator, fellow, or in any other capacity, click here for more information.

Liz Nagle is a member of the 10th class of Kiva Fellows and is working with Nor Horizon and two other soon-to-be-official Kiva Field Partners in Yerevan, Armenia. To see loans from Armenia, click here.

About the author