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> Posted by Sarah Samuels, Global Operations Manager, the Smart Campaign

This is the third in a series of blog posts exploring the impact of Smart Certification on the financial inclusion industry

When financial service providers approach Smart Certification, they often have a number of questions. Many want to know if certification is worth the investment in terms of their financial bottom line. The answer we’ve heard from Smart Certified institutions is an unequivocal “yes.” As the Smart Campaign celebrates the recent milestone of 100 Smart Certifications, we’d like to explore the value of certification as Smart Certified financial service providers see it.

In partnership with Deutsche Bank, the Smart Campaign recently conducted a survey of certified institutions to understand how they view their experience with Smart Certification. (You can find the full survey findings in the Consumer Protection Resources Kit.) In an affirmation of Smart Certification’s value, 82 percent of institutions surveyed believe the cost of certification (in terms of both the servicing fee and internal staff time) was compensated by the value the institution received in return. This finding aligns with research from the European Microfinance Platform, which determined that consumer protection practices, such as price transparency, respectful collection practices and effective complaint resolution, are linked to higher financial returns and have a positive impact on the provider’s bottom line.

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> Posted by Daniel Balson, Lead Specialist for Eurasia and MENA, the Smart Campaign

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Smart Certification requires a substantial commitment from the financial institutions that choose to seek it. These institutions face a thorough audit by an independent third-party and may be required to improve client-related policies and practices at multiple levels, drawing in staff from the executive suite to the field offices.

In short, is it worth it? Why would a financial institution elect to participate in such a program – especially if the institution is operating smoothly?

A new survey conducted by Deutsche Bank and the Smart Campaign captures the perspectives and experiences of over 24 Smart Certified institutions and yields insights on why nearly 80 financial institutions around the world have achieved Smart Certification, with many more on the path to be certified.

The surprising result is that in addition to the benefit of publicly affirming that financial institutions treat their clients well, Smart Certification helps energize corporate culture and shift it toward client-centricity.

First off, Smart Certification allows financial service providers to distinguish themselves from the competition by demonstrating to their market and the industry that they provide a higher level of service to their clientele. Smart Certified institutions have to exhibit to independent auditors that at every stage from product design through customer acquisition and service delivery, they are governed by standards that ensure clients are treated fairly. Financial institutions have found a wide audience for their newly certified status. Half of all certified institutions reported that their regulators took positive and formal notice of their certification. Additionally, the majority reported positive media attention.

Respondents agreed that the biggest benefit of Smart Certification was in helping them see the world from their clients’ perspective and infuse client protection into the DNA of their operations. Over 90 percent of certified financial institutions agreed that Smart Certification has helped them prioritize their clients’ rights and reshape their institutional culture around client protection.

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> Posted by Joshua Goldstein, Principal Director for Economic Citizenship & Disability Inclusion, CFI

The extent of the reciprocal relationship of trust between an employer and employee may be hard to measure, but it may be more indispensable to good governance than a variety of risk management tools. In fact, there are organizations that forego some traditional risk management mechanisms, instead emphasizing the power of trust. One example, according to Andrew Ross Sorkin, writing in DealBook, is Berkshire Hathaway, the American multinational conglomerate that’s currently the fifth-largest company in the United States.

The normative route to good governance encompasses a host of practices including risk management functions, internal auditing, and board committees. A MIX project examining the practices of over 150 MFIs across 57 countries found a positive correlation among institutional governance indicators, suggesting that good governance practices don’t exist in isolation. Putting such watch-dog measures into place, however costly, is increasingly standard practice at institutions both public and private around the world. Without these, who knows what some employees might be tempted to do. It is the price of doing business. Or at least that is the common school of thought.

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> Posted by Alexandra Rizzi, Deputy Director, the Smart Campaign

Client Protection Certification sealAs the market for the Smart Campaign’s recently launched Client Protection Certification Program kicks off, we’d like to acknowledge the important role that investors will play in the success of the program. What we mean by success is the creation of a viable, sustainable market for certification that encourages the industry’s standards of practice to improve. As suppliers of funds to retail financial providers who serve the poor, investors are in a key position to incentivize their portfolios to improve practices and work towards certification. And by encouraging their investees to get certified, they are helping them to meet public, industry-wide standards of practice that can be understood by everyone – including indirect investors, regulators, and ultimately even clients.

Certification can help investors distinguish among retail providers, particularly in complicated markets where the microfinance label is applied to actors with varying motivations. While it is not meant to replace the investigative rigors that funders conduct prior to an investment, certification conveys that an organization has met a concrete set of operational standards. “We see the Smart Campaign’s Certification Program as similar to a Fair Trade standard for microfinance. It weaves client protection into all aspects of the business relationship between a customer and a financial institution,” said Asad Mahmood, Managing Director of the Global Social Investment Fund at Deutsche Bank.

The Smart Campaign has long enjoyed support from the investor community, with over 200 investors and donors having endorsed the Campaign. Investors have also provided co-financing for activities like assessments and tool creation. But now that certification is available, there are additional ways that investors can support the program and build the market:

  • Urge your investees to seek certification.
  • Support organizations to become certification-ready through self-assessments, third-party assessments, and other tools available to diagnose and improve practices. Most providers will require improvements in practice to become certification-ready. Certification is achievable for most providers with time and effort, but each institution will have its own timeframe.
  • Reward and highlight organizations that become certified in whatever ways are available. For example, it may be possible to offer margin reductions to organizations that have achieved the high standards set by the Campaign.

We’ve been excited by the enthusiasm from the investor community, particularly the examples of Oikocredit and Deutsche Bank, who are taking concrete steps to incorporate certification into their work .

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> Posted by Jeffrey Riecke, Communications Assistant, CFI

Client protection needs to be at the core of the microfinance industry in order to maintain sustainable growth, a recent report from Deutsche Bank asserts. “Microfinance in Evolution: An Industry Between Crisis and Advancement” explores the current state of the industry—including its present challenges—and offers insight into how it can sustainably achieve its social and commercial goals.

The report is based primarily on individual MFI financial and social performance data from The MIX and concludes that a new balance between social development and a commercial approach is needed to “rehabilitate microfinance as a development tool.” A new approach is needed due to widespread MFI performance deterioration since 2008 (increases in client delinquency, declines in MFI profits, and decreases in asset growth), stemming largely from market growth, and changes in the MFI client base and lending methodology. To put the industry on the right track, the report’s authors call for an overhaul of practices that have proven to be unsuccessful and more specifically, instilling client needs as the focus of all MFI operations.

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Credit Suisse is a founding sponsor of the Center for Financial Inclusion. The Credit Suisse Group Foundation looks to its philanthropic partners to foster research, innovation and constructive dialogue in order to spread best practices and develop new solutions for financial inclusion.

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The views and opinions expressed on this blog, except where otherwise noted, are those of the authors and guest bloggers and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Center for Financial Inclusion or its affiliates.