Learn how to use micro-lending websites to help struggling small-business owners worldwide.

By Jennie Dorris
Updated February 13, 2012
Illustration of smiling world
Credit: Papercut.fr

You want to pay it forward by making a donation, but you may feel uneasy about giving to a massive nonprofit. (Where exactly is my money going?) Micro-lending is an interesting alternative route.

Micro-lending is a process by which you lend money directly to struggling small-business owners, many of whom are financially strapped women in developing countries (think a painter in Costa Rica or a seamstress in Peru). To find a business you would like to help, go to MicroPlace.com or Kiva.org, organizations that assist entrepreneurs around the world. Once you sign up through either of these secure websites, you can lend anywhere from $20 to the full amount of the requested loan (often several hundred to a few thousand dollars). The entire loan goes to the business owner for a specific project—there are no hidden fees.

As the enterprise grows (the painter buys new supplies or the seamstress hires an assistant), Kiva sends you updates on the company’s success. (MicroPlace sends only a single newsletter about all its projects.) Repayment schedules vary, but typically the money is paid back: Kiva boasts a 99 percent repayment rate; MicroPlace’s is 98 percent. The funds are then returned to your account, along with interest if you’re using MicroPlace. You can withdraw the money or, better yet, lend it to another worthy project.