Twenty-seven years ago, more than a decade after Joe Selvaggio decided he could no longer be Father Selvaggio at Holy Rosary Catholic Church in south Minneapolis (or any other Catholic parish, for that matter), he married Rosario Escanan, a native of the Philippines. Since then, Selvaggio has become one of the Twin Cities’ best-known activist-philanthropists, and one of its most well-connected. He also has traveled frequently throughout the developing world, including several trips to his wife’s homeland. He recalls in particular a journey that he made there in 1984.
“When I was over there, I’d give some of her ambitious relatives $50 to buy a pregnant pig or a sewing machine,” recalls Selvaggio, whose soft-spoken manner also interweaves a Chicago-born toughness. “They were all kind of poor, even though most of them were college graduates.
“So I said, ‘If you make it with this pregnant pig and they have babies and you sell them and you make a real business out of it, you can pay me back. But if not, don’t worry about it.’” Two decades later, Selvaggio tapped this experience to start an organization called MicroGrants.
Founded in 2005, MicroGrants’ work bears some resemblance to “microlending,” an idea made famous by Bangladeshi economist Muhammad Yunus. A microlender, such as Grameen Bank, the Bangladesh enterprise that Yunus founded, provides small loans to impoverished people looking to start businesses; the loans can be used for livestock, sewing machines, tools, whatever’s needed. The model earned Yunus the 2006 Nobel Peace Prize and numerous other awards; it also has its critics, who say that microloans often burden the poor with debt they can ill afford.
MicroGrants doesn’t lend money: It gives it away. The size of the grants might strike most businesses as, well, micro—$1,000 each. (A few have been under a grand, and a few a little over.) But for the recipients, who tend to be poor as well as ambitious, that thousand can be the boost they need to start or improve a business, continue their education, or otherwise climb the ladder of life.
Though he doesn’t make reference to microlending, Selvaggio seems aware of the criticisms that have been made of it. In any case, he doesn’t want to be a lender. “Everyone in America seems to borrow too much: the federal government, individuals, middle-class people,” Selvaggio says. “We all want to acquire a lot of things, and we get ourselves in a lot of trouble. I want to teach equity, not debt.”
The terms “social enterprise” and “social entrepreneurship” have caught fire in recent years as business models for nonprofits (and, in some cases, for-profits). Social enterprises don’t only want to improve people’s lives—they seek to do so in a way that’s sustainable and measurable. It’s something that Selvaggio has done even before social entrepreneurialism became au courant. MicroGrants is simply his latest venture.
Joe and Rose live in a handsome bungalow in Minneapolis’s Central neighborhood. Bounded by Lake Street, Chicago Avenue, 38th Street, and 35W, Central reflects a diverse and complex mixture of poverty and middle-class solidity. Its housing stock includes numerous grand houses from the early 20th century, some gone to shabby seed, others attractively rehabbed. Long a bastion of the city’s black middle class (former Minneapolis Mayor Sharon Sayles-Belton grew up here), Central these days is predominantly Hispanic, though large numbers of both whites and African Americans call the neighborhood home.
Given his background, Central seems like just the right place for Selvaggio to reside. His career has been spent largely among the poor, but his work has always been about helping poor folks to rise above their circumstances—to not remain poor. As Selvaggio says, “I want to help the poor become middle class.” But whether poor or middle class, he believes that people should live within their means. Selvaggio himself bought his house in 1974 for $25,000, putting $5,000 down. The house, he says with quiet pride, is now worth “a couple hundred thousand dollars.”