An Interview with Krishna Thacker, Director, Metlife Foundation

In conversation with Rusen Kumar, Editor India CSR; Krishna Thacker, Director, Metlife Foundation shared MetLife Foundation mission and works for India. Edited Excerpt: 

Kindly tell us about your India operations.

India is a very important geography for us, not just because of the size of the market, but because we know that we are working in a country in which the government is creating the necessary conditions for success. MetLife Foundation team has been actively and exclusively supporting several Financial Inclusion initiatives in India and globally. Since 2013, MetLife Foundation has invested more than USD 6.4 million in grants to over 14 financial inclusion initiatives/institutions spread across the country. MetLife Foundation’s partners spread across the length and breadth of the country from Odhisha to Kashmir.

We are working with Ujjivan (via Women’s World Banking) and Parinaam Foundation in Delhi to strengthen the ability of unbanked entrepreneurs to grow their businesses and use credit well; with Sesame Street we are looking forward to entertaining and encouraging healthy financial habits; We’re working with several partners (including Grameen Foundation and Margdarshak in Uttar Pradesh), Svasti in Mumbai and with Enclude and  Sub-K in several states of India to improve delivery of high quality financial services directly to clients’ doorsteps and neighborhood shops – safely and securely improving people’s ability to improve their financial lives.

I had the experience of visiting a business correspondent in Delhi last year and was amazed to watch several people park their motorbikes, walk up to the counter, deposit their days wage and then get right back on their bike to head home. This ability to meet the customers in simple, convenient ways demonstrates the way India is leading the charge against financial exclusion.

Please throw some light on MetLife Foundation CSR journey?

MetLife Foundation was created in 1976 to continue MetLife’s long tradition of corporate contributions and community involvement. Since its existence, MetLife Foundation has made more than $700 million in grants and $70 million in program-related investments to organizations working to make a positive difference, whether at the global, regional, or local level. MetLife Foundation is focused on advancing financial inclusion, committing $200 million to help build more stable and secure futures for individuals and communities around the world. Financial inclusion helps low-income people and businesses gain access to safe, affordable, and effective financial services such as bank accounts, savings accounts, loans, insurance, pensions and more.

We partner with organizations that provide advice and access to high quality financial services. Our efforts help ensure that financial services are understood and used by all people providing them with greater self-sufficiency, stability and financial security. With only 27 percent of adults in Asia having a bank account, and only 33 percent of firms having a loan or line of credit, greater financial inclusion is gaining recognition as an essential component of Asia’s economic development. Which is why the work that we do through MetLife Foundation becomes increasingly important and has real impact.

When did you start your journey at MetLife Foundation?

I joined at a very interesting moment in the organization’s journey. In 2013, MetLife Foundation had a new mission of financial inclusion and they decided to expand their work in Asia and other regions (outside of the U.S.). I joined MetLife Foundation in March 2013, with the responsibility to drive their new Financial Inclusion strategy in Asia. Fast forward to now and almost three years down the line, we are well on our way to achieve our mission and I don’t think I could have made a better decision. It is a privilege of a lifetime as well as a massive responsibility to be a part of a dedicated team which has the resources and ability to positively impact financial lives of millions of people.

How do you assess the CSR performance of MetLife Foundation?

Measuring impact is as important as funding the organization that is making a difference in the community. At the Foundation impact is not just about the numbers reached; it is about seeing behavior change in individuals.

There are many and varied ways to work towards this goal and it is easy to understand why financial education training would be among the most popular. However, sometimes the measures that matter most – actual outcomes—the task becomes more complex. Improved credit scores, increased household savings, decreased late-payments for bills, reduced stress, etc. – more often than not this sort of data is not collected nor verified for each person who attends training. Instead, low-income people like everyone else often need some additional incentives – an automatic deduction from their paycheck to a savings account, a text-message reminder to make bill payments, encouragement from a coach (or, increasingly a ”virtual coach” app)—to stay on track. Like going to the gym, “financial fitness” requires some long-term dedication from the client and provider institution. Therefore, our approach to measuring impact stresses both customer and institution. We support programs that build individuals’ financial capability and programs that build the capacity of institutions to serve them well.

Your observation on Financial inclusion scenario currently in India?

For India, it is an idea whose time has come. With Financial inclusion as a key pillar of Indian Government’s policy agenda plus the right market conditions with significantly improved last mile distribution, affordable and increasingly ubiquitous mobile and smartphone penetration, India has all the right conditions to make a significant positive impact on hundreds of millions of people in the next few years.

Could you give us some examples of various initiatives in financial empowerment in Asia?

We have over 70 financial inclusion projects with USD $32 million of grant commitments under way across nine countries in Asia. Let me give you a few examples from our projects outside of India to give you a flavor:

In Bangladesh, BURO, one of the prominent microfinance institutions, is working with our strategic partner MicroSave, to leverage the growing mobile money network, adapt and use technology to offer a wider range of financial services to better meet the financial services needs for their 1.4 million customers and attract new clients seeking flexible, convenient financial services.

In Nepal, we are supporting Mobile Money 4 the Poor, a large sector level program managed by UN Capital Development fund – UNCDF. The program will closely engage with key stakeholders in government, banks, mobile network operators, microfinance institutions and technology service providers and aims to directly impact over 100,000 customers in the next two years.

In Myanmar, MLF is supporting Accion to expand microfinance operations in Myanmar via Dawn Microfinance (Dawn) and provide technical assistance to build their systems and capacities, expand their outreach, as well as offer improved and a wider range of products and services to low income households. Over the next four years, Dawn plans to grow its portfolio from USD $2 million to over USD $24 million, expanding from 12 branches in three regions to 26 branches nationally, serving 130,000 clients with over 150,000 loans.

In China, one of our projects, with global microfinance experts Accion, has partnered with the China Association of Microfinance and China Foundation for Poverty Alleviation to increase the capability of 20 high-quality, socially-oriented Microfinance Institutions to help them reach these large number of un/under banked people in rural areas with better products and services.

In addition to our grant support, I would also like to highlight how we are able to engage our talent. In 2015, more than 900 employees volunteered with several NGOs across 7 markets and contributed over 4,600 hours of pro bono work, notably, with Habitat for Humanity and Junior Achievement. In 2016, we are ready to significantly boost our employee engagement efforts further.

Elaborate more about MetLife Foundation initiatives and Inclusion Plus.

Inclusion Plus is an innovation competition from MetLife Foundation that is seeking creative and sustainable solutions to advance financial inclusion in India. Competitors will learn about other social enterprises and compete for a grant pool totaling $150,000 USD. PNB MetLife associates will serve as judges and mentors in the competition, developing leadership skills and giving valuable feedback to participating entrepreneurs.

What have been some of the greatest challenges in this project? How has your company overcome them?

By rolling out the competition country by country versus as one global competition, MetLife Foundation has the opportunity to customize the Inclusion Plus Challenge to meet the needs of each country. This country specific approach is rewarding and complex. To support the deep focus in each country and gain scale, we have worked closely with our strong network of former grantees, accelerators, experts and institutions to help recruit and support the applicants and competition overall.

How is it changing lives?

While it’s still early in the competition lifecycle to determine measurable impact, we are seeing great interest from competition applicants in India. We look forward to building connections with the applicants during the semifinal and final rounds.  The winning teams will be those that demonstrate they are making an impact today and that have a plan to scale their impact using the grant award and other resources. In Ireland, the Finalists involved in the competition have begun building their own financial inclusion ecosystem and have plans to use their awards to increase services that support those with low and moderate income.

Any plans to replicate this in other markets as well? 

Inclusion Plus just completed its first competition in Ireland in September 2016 and the competition is currently underway in China as well as India. MetLife Foundation plans to hold the competition in a total of 10 countries in 6 languages by the end of 2018

What are your goals for 2017?

In 2017, we will focus on growth and scale initiatives to help reach the 1.2 billion people in Asia who still do not have access to basic financial services. In addition to that, given the number of projects we already have in the country, in 2017, we will focus on managing and leveraging our existing grants to make sure that we learn about their progress as well their challenges and share these lessons with relevant stakeholders.

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