NEW YORK ( TheStreet) - The Small Business Administration needs to work harder to assess risk among its lenders, says a new report from the Government Accountability Office. This doesn't bode well for borrowers whose credit is anything less than perfect. Luckily for entrepreneurs, nonprofit microlenders are eager to help. Only a fraction of cash-strapped entrepreneurs who could benefit from a microloan apply for one. Less than 1% of small-business owners in the U.S. have received microloans to date, according to an April article in the Journal of Corporation Law. It's not that microloans haven't received any publicity. In fact, the United Nations named 2005 the Year of Microcredit, with celebrities like Michael Douglas and Aishwarya Rai filming public service announcements to encourage donations to entrepreneurs in third-world countries. But in the United States, "the people who should know that microfinance is an option for them don't know," says Laura Kozien, communications director at Accion USA, a nonprofit microlender in New York. "Most business owners who are familiar with microfinance think I'm not poor, I'm not an immigrant, so microfinancing isn't for me." Groups like Accion might become a key source of funding as the SBA curtails lending. The number of 7(a) and CDC/504 loans issued by the Small Business Administration fell 35% from 78,317 in fiscal 2008 to 50,829 in 2009. The total dollar value of the SBA's loans dropped 28% to $13.1 billion. Microloans are a smart, viable option for any cash-strapped business of five employees or fewer, Kozien says. On that note, here are five things you need to know if you're thinking about applying for a microloan:
Who qualifies? Accion will consider any entrepreneur with a credit score above 575, who doesn't have past-due accounts in excess of $3,000 and whose business doesn't involve real estate investing, multilevel marketing, adult entertainment or firearms. They must also rent their space or hold a fixed-rate mortgage and own fewer than three properties. How does one find a microlender? The Association for Enterprise Opportunity, which focuses on the microenterprise industry, keeps a list of members on its Web site. Most of these are regional lenders. Accion is a good place to start because it provides loans nationwide. How big is a microloan? Accion offers business loans of up to $50,000 and start-up loans of up to $30,000, with "start-up" defined as any company less than a year old. This differs from many banks, which consider a start-up to be any company younger than three years. The average loan is about $6,600. What are the interest rates? Interest rates for microloans typically range from 8% to 15%, Kozien says. While these are higher than those of many bank loans, they're lower than rates charged when you borrow from credit cards or approach loan sharks. Where does the money come from? Microloans often come from peer-to-peer funding, in which strangers pool resources online to collect money for the entrepreneur they choose to fund from a photo gallery of applicants. On Kiva.com, which partners with Accion, featured entrepreneurs include a Palestinian driving instructor who needs money for training manuals, a Ugandan beauty salon that needs hair dryers, and a taxi driver in New York who needs to fix his car.
In the states, much of the funding for microloans comes from the charitable arms of corporations or banks. They team up with organizations like Accion to comply with the Community Reinvestment Act of 1977, which requires banks to help the communities in which they operate. "We fundraise for the difference," says Elizete Groenendaal, Accion's vice president of marketing and business development. "We don't make any money from these loans." -- Reported by Carmen Nobel in Boston