Kiva is a great, nontraditional charity, in which you provide "micro-loans" to small business owners in third-world countries, rather than simply donating money to them. This makes it possible for your money to have a greater impact than with a traditional charity. Of course there's no guarantee that you'll be repaid, and I'm not sure if you can even get the money back if you need it when you are (you might only be able to lend it out to someone else), but it's still a pretty cool concept! They will occasionally provide updates on events in the countries where the folks you're lending to are located, which is neat as well.
Understand what Kiva is and what it isn't.
The personal profiles features are all people who have ALREADY received loans. When you provide funds to cover them, you allow the lender to provide loans to new people.
Does it matter which loans you choose? Yes, to the extent that the lenders will know that they can obtain backers much more easily for things like home solar energy and will probably look more favorably on those applications.
Are the interest rates too high? Microfinance is expensive. It costs money to do the paperwork to make sure the borrower is creditworthy and to process the payments. If anything the cost is higher with with microfinance -- people don't have an Experian credit score the bank can just look up.
But the alternative sources of lending available to the very poor are much more expensive. The typical loan is for a 24 hour period, with a shopkeeper loaning money to stock a stall at a bazaar each day, paying the money back with interest the next day, and borrowing again for the next day's stock. Having the ability to borrow a few hundred dollars and pay it back over months instead of days is more likely to help people to move out of poverty.
I believe I was targeted for one or more hack attempts because of security holes in the Kiva website. It stores your unencrypted email id in their cookies for example. You can see it in the url if you clear cookies and log in. Also, because Kiva lenders are willing to part with their money for a good cause they make excellent targets for profiling scams. Three incidents have made me leary of Kiva's vulnerabilities: (1) someone posing as a graduate student posted to a community message board, asking for people to visit his website and fill out a questionairre on their lending behaviors (2) the gmail account I use for logging into Kiva had a hack attempt (3) shortly after these incidents I logged into the kiva site only to be forcefully logged out and directed to log in with my facebook account and give kiva permissions to post messages to friends "as me". Clearing my cookies got around that problem. I don't know if this intrusion was a Kiva "feature" or malicious code inserted into their site. I notified Kiva of my concerns but never heard back from them.
I've read about this and it is a great idea that actually works quite well. It's micro-loaning to entrepreneurs in developing countries and you get paid back but the point is to help others. You also end up learning about other cultures and understanding them more.
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Make a loan to an entrepreneur across the globe for as little as $25. Kiva is the world's first online lending platform connecting online lenders to entrepreneurs across the globe.