Home-grown financial nonprofit BetterFi and the South Cumberland Plateau (SCP) Volunteers in Service to America (VISTA) Project were recognized in Washington D.C., in September, at the 2019 Excellence in AmeriCorps Awards ceremony. These awards were created to recognize outstanding and innovative AmeriCorps programs, members, and alumni tackling our nation’s most pressing challenges. One of five nationally selected awardees, BetterFi and the SCP VISTA Project received the award for Most Significant Innovation to an AmeriCorps Program. The innovation is BetterFi itself, which through its affordable consumer loans and financial programming is seeking to demonstrate a viable model that can serve as an alternative to predatory payday and car title loans.
Nearly four years ago, the University of the South’s Babson Center for Global Commerce joined the SCP VISTA Project effort by recruiting an economic development coordinator VISTA, University alumnus Spike Hosch, C’12, to evaluate the establishment of economic development entities in the rural communities of the South Cumberland Plateau. At the end of 2017, with the assistance of numerous organizations and University alumni, Hosch established BetterFi, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit enterprise. “High praise goes to Spike for his creative genius, dedication, and persistence in serving what was at that time an unprecedented two-and-a-half-year VISTA term to see this project through,” said Nicky Hamilton, C’99, Di-rector of Community Development for the University and South Cumberland Community Fund (SCCF), a local community non-profit. “BetterFi would not be possible were it not for his steadfast leadership and vision, and we thank the Corporation for National Community Service for recognizing his work.”
BetterFi serves as a nonprofit economic justice enterprise, primarily providing an alternative to high-interest short-term consumer loans typically offered by predatory payday and car title lenders. BetterFi pairs its financial services with complementary financial programming such as financial coaching, free income tax preparation alongside the Sewanee Volunteer Income Tax Assistance program, and a financial literacy program in Grundy County elementary schools in partnership with Junior Achievement Chattanooga. BetterFi operates in conjunction with partner organizations such as churches, nonprofits, forprofit businesses, and conventional financial institutions to identify possible clients. BetterFi typically assists its clients first by refinancing predatory loans that they may already be stuck in – Tennessee payday loans can carry an Annual Percentage Rate (APR) of interest and fees as high as 460% – since BetterFi’s loans are capped at an ef-fective APR of 24% and the average rate paid by its cli-ents is closer to 13%. All borrowers undergo an application process that involves assessing borrowers’ ability to pay back a loan. To-date BetterFi has saved its clients more than $140,000 – money that families can redirect to food, clothing, car or home repairs, and educational expenses. “BetterFi loans don’t go toward income generation for our clients, but the loans save them money – these savings go straight into the local economy rather than toward the high interest and fees that short-term lenders charge,” said Hosch.
The SCP VISTA Project is receiving this recognition as it approaches five years from inception: the program was created by the University’s Dr. Jim Peterman and community member Jack Murrah and spearheaded by alumna Nicky Hamilton, as part of a cooperative effort between the University of the South, Tennessee’s AmeriCorps program, SCCF, and other local nonprofits and government entities. Senator Marsha Blackburn (R-TN), Representative Scott DesJarlais(R-TN), and a representative for Senator Lamar Alexander’s office (R-TN) met with Hosch and Hamilton while they were in D.C. to congratulate BetterFi and the SCP VISTA Project.
L-R: Barbara Stewart, CEO of the Corporation for National Community Service; Nicky Hamilton, Director of Community Development, SCCF/University of the South; Spike Hosch, Founder & Executive Director, BetterFi; Desiree Tucker-Sorini, Director of AmeriCorps VISTA; and Chester Spellman, Director of AmeriCorps at the 2019 Excellence in AmeriCorps Awards ceremony in Washington, D. C. on September 19th.