Making a Difference West Edition

MAKING A DIFFERENCE: Shared Harvest Fund helps students pay down debt

By Jose Ivan Cazares

Contributing Writer

The Federal Reserve published data that shows Americans owe a record $1.5 trillion in student loans as of 2018, and, according to the same data, black and Latino borrowers are the most burdened by this increase in debt.

The Shared Harvest Fund, a crowd funded initiative, seeks to help all students with the burden of financial aid debt by allowing them to use their acquired skills to benefit their communities.

College graduates in the U.S. accumulate and average $28,400 in student loan debt by the time they earn their bachelor’s degree and it’s not unheard of for many to owe more money.

The Shared Harvest Fund’s Debtfreelancer Initiative connects graduates with nonprofits in need of their services and rewards them with direct payments on a loan of their choice.

Shared Harvest is also developing a program geared toward college freshmen interested in debtfreelancing that would allow them to start paying back their student loans before they graduate.

The organization profit-generating for-purpose social enterprise. It does not rely on donations.  Eighty percent of its membership revenue goes back to helping members pay off their student loans. Revenue is generated from memberships (individual, nonprofit and corporations) and ad revenue.  

The Shared Harvest Fund capitalizes on trends in the job market like the gig economy. The gig economy is a shift away from permanent job seeking in favor of short-term freelance work.

The trend is most visible in the success of companies like Uber and Postmates, which market themselves as perfect employers for students, entrepreneurs and other creative types who value flexibility over steady work.

Like those companies, Shared Harvest uses technology to connect its members. Nonprofits can register at sharedharvestfund.org and post project needs and job openings free of charge.

Corporate partners post ads and jobs, sponsor projects and enroll in the student loan repayment benefit packages so they can offer to their employees.   

Graduates can register on the same website, access the postings and pitch projects of their own. The service will also be expanded to allow private businesses to post employment opportunities and career fair ads.

The Shared Harvest Fund recognizes the importance of the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals and have incorporated them into their mission. Its work provides measurable impact while providing opportunities to engage with nonprofits across all sectors.   Members support initiatives that mobilize improvements in mental health, education reform, gender pay gaps, social justice and environmental sustainability and take on projects that tackle homelessness, wrongful convictions and a variety of social issues.

“We wanted to make it as easy and accessible as Pokemon Go. We’re in the 21st century. People need to be able to own their time,” said NanaEfua Baidoo Afoh-Manin, co-founder and CEO of Shared Harvest, who goes by BAM. She said the program is designed to be easy for members to find projects they are passionate about by allowing them to create a detailed profile highlighting their skills, experience in their fields and personal interests.

Debtfreelancers earn between $250 and $1,000 per project that goes directly towards their student loans debt.

BAM said each project lasts no longer than three months. However, she also said members can use the platform to network and establish long-term relationships

“Student debt is like a new form of indentured servitude,” BAM said. “Everyone has a story about a student who worked their way up to a top college, gets an incredible send off and ends up in college, gets in mountains of debt trying to achieve what they believe is going to be their dream job.

“However, they end up having to choose between a job they really love and paying off this debt that’s suddenly a real part of their lives.”

BAM is a physician and took on a significant amount of debt herself during her academic career. She said she’s witnessed first hand the mental and physical impacts crippling debt can have on a person.

“Working in an emergency room I saw a lot of cases of depression and suicide surrounding this feeling of helplessness and we wanted to make a difference,” BAM said.

During her first year as an undergraduate, BAM found herself forced to take out a student loan to repair the roof at her mother’s house, which had collapsed.

“When I was in school they were giving out student loans like candy and I didn’t really get much counseling,” BAM said. “Long story short, I could have paid for three roof tops with that money, but it took me incredibly long to pay it off. When my mom passed away, I felt very emotional. I felt like I failed her because I still had all this debt, but I wanted to go to medical school and ended up taking in even more debt.”

BAM was eventually able to see that her accomplishments outweigh the negative impact debt has had on her life.

“I see that being a physician is a career that afforded me the ability to pay off my debt, but there are many who are not as fortunate and may be paying down student debt for more than 20 years,” she said. “We have not had to take out any business loans. Our founders infused the initial capital because we had a vision that we could solve the biggest problem students and families are having.”  

She said the program is beneficial for all parties involved, including private businesses seeking to deepen their ties with the communities they serve, and hopes to see more involvement from such businesses.

INFORMATION BOX

CEO/ Founder – NanaEfua (BAM) Baidoo Afoh-Manin

Years in operation – 1

Number of employees – N/A

Annual budget – $1.5 million

Location – 925 N. La Brea Blvd. Suite 5059 Los Angeles, 90038