kiva pittsburgh
Kiva President Premal Shah during a press conference with some of Kiva's Pittsburgh startups last Thursday.

Crowdfunding sites like Kickstarter and Indiegogo rely on the fundraisers’ promoting of special perks to encourage donations. Now a new crowdfunding platform designed specifically to aid in the development of small, local businesses officially arrived in Pittsburgh last week offering funders something different: their money back.

Kiva Zip, a city-oriented pilot program from San Francisco-based non-profit Kiva, chose Pittsburgh as the eighth U.S. City to participate in its person-to-person system for crowdfunding no-interest small business loans.

“It’s not that banks are bad,” says Kiva President Premal Shah. “It’s just that there’s an information gap in the market that doesn’t get character. What we want to do is create a system where you’ve got crowdfunded loans, and if you pay them back, more good things can happen.”

Those things, Shah says, include access to higher loan amounts and an established public credit history which a business can use to get more substantial loans from mainstream banks. In order to qualify for a crowdfunded loan through Kiva Zip, a borrower must secure donations from a certain number of friends and a trustee — a person or company willing to vouch for the borrower’s character.

Among the 30 or so businesses in Kiva Pittburgh’s program is the 52nd Street Market, a co-venture between Lawrenceville residents Dora Walmsley and Deirdre Kane, which opened last month. The Lawrenceville Corporation vouched for the fledgling business en route to its successfully crowdsourcing a $2,500 loan.

Once the loan is paid back, not only does the borrower get that established on their public credit history, they gain the opportunity to crowdfund loans through Kiva of gradually larger amounts up to $25,000. In turn, the trustees for borrowers who have repaid loans accrue credit to serve as trustees for other businesses.

Not only does the system breed a lot of good will, it’s been remarkably effective. Kiva Zip boasts a return rate of nearly 90 percent.

“It’s not like we’re replacing the banks, we’re just a rung on the ladder toward small businesses being able to gain access to larger loans,” Shah says.

In its first year, Kiva Pittsburgh is aiming to fund 100 entrepreneurs.

Matthew Wein

Matthew Wein is a local writer, editor, blogger, storyteller and proud native Pittsburgher. Once described as "a man of things," he covers city design, spirits and craft beer for NEXT, where he keeps all of the editorial meetings light-hearted and interesting. His interests include sorting books, looking at old things and candles which smell like old-growth pine forests.