Advancing Hope, One Loan at a Time

nonprofit a ‘life vest’ for those whose only options are high-interest loans

Julie Thalhuber Bendel

Amanda and Gary, two recipients of loans from the Advancing Hope Fund, are now on the group’s board.
Amanda and Gary, two recipients of loans from the Advancing Hope Fund, are now on the group’s board.

Amanda was at a low point in her life. The recently divorced mother of five was told that the home she was renting would no longer be a rental. Although a business owner before moving to Eau Claire, the needs of her children, especially one child with special needs, made it difficult to work full-time. Needing to find a new home but without the financial resources to pay for a damage deposit and first month’s rent, Amanda was not sure where to turn. Amanda’s situation looked brighter after her minister referred her to Advancing Hope Fund, which gave Amanda a no-interest loan to cover those expenses.

“Advancing Hope Fund was a life vest that kept me afloat,” said Amanda (whose last name is withheld to protect her privacy). The loan allowed Amanda to find a safe place for her family to live. Amanda credits the loan with giving her the breathing room to plan a future for herself and her kids that involved going back to school. She recently completed a degree at UW-Eau Claire and is confident she will soon find a full-time job.

According to its mission statement, Advancing Hope Fund is a “small lending community paying forward hope and financial help.” The fund was started in 2012 as a direct response to the failed attempts to regulate the payday loan industry in Wisconsin. Payday loan companies offer small, short-term loans due within a month or on a borrower’s next payday. Lenders can charge interest rates ranging from 20 percent to in excess of 300 percent for a loan using a borrower’s car title as collateral. Borrowers of these types of loans can quickly enter a cycle where they are unable to make payments and are saddled with debt that becomes almost impossible to pay back. Members of the economic justice task force of JONAH (Joining our Neighbors Advancing Hope), an Eau Claire-based advocacy group, saw the injustice of such lending practices and created Advancing Hope Fund to make loans to those with financial needs without charging interest. “We felt we needed to provide immediate care for people in need,” said Ken Ripp, one of the group’s founders and current board treasurer.

Advancing Hope Fund receives the funds it lends through donations from individuals, congregations, financial institutions, and loan recipients’ payments. The fund is governed by a six- to eight-member board of directors. Potential loan recipients must live in Eau Claire and are referred by community members such as pastors, social workers, educators, or board members. Once a referral has been accepted by a board member, the next step in the process is to meet with Adrian Klenz, a professional financial counselor and owner of Klenz Financial Services. Klenz looks at the financial history of the candidate, assesses the candidate’s ability to successfully repay a loan, and offers general financial education such as budgeting. He then provides a summary of his findings to the Advancing Hope Fund board. Board members review the summary, meet with the recipient, formally approve the loan, and craft a mutually agreeable repayment plan.

The recipient agrees to meet regularly with a “walking partner,” which is a unique aspect of the Advancing Hope Fund loan process. A walking partner is a financial mentor who meets regularly with the loan recipient. The regular meetings are designed to help ensure repayment of the loan, to create a working budget, to track repayments, to communicate any changes that might affect the repayment plan, and to encourage the recipient to set goals. Amanda describes the walking partner as a “supportive, understanding advocate.” During the repayment process, a walking partner may also suggest revisiting the financial counselor when needed for more education/advice about how to handle finance or changes in income.

Advancing Hope Fund also has an expectation of loan recipients “paying it forward” by being positive forces in the community when they can. For Amanda, that has translated into becoming a board membersfor Advancing Hope Fund and speaking to organizations about the loan program. “AHF values my skills and does not view my financial crisis as an indication of negative personal character,” she said.

For more information about Advancing Hope Fund Inc., contact Ken Ripp at rippsk@charter.net or (715) 456-5703.