Kiva: A great idea that isn't exactly what it seemed - how to find a charity you can support


The online micro-finance charity Web site Kiva rose to be a shining non-profit success story in the recession years. It marries the trendiness of social entrepreneurship with an almost perfect combination of online applications. If you haven't used the site before (and, full disclosure, I've been donating above-average amounts for about a year), try it.

It's hard not to be fascinated and compelled by the hundreds of people in mostly developing countries (U.S. candidates were added this year) telling their stories, asking for not much more of an investment in their business than we fat Americans spend on lunch at Subway. I've made loans to budding clothing sellers in Mongolia and Tajikistan; a struggling restaurateur in Cambodia; and a nascent women's' transportation cooperative in Pakistan. One borrower, a young man from Ukraine with a wife and child who wanted to expand his cab company, actually paid me back in full. I took the money and gave it to another entrepreneur. It's quite a feeling to personalize charity in this way. And from a non-profit perspective, it's a Holy Grail, a killer app, a nano-Nirvana: It makes the donor happy, and keeps dollars coming in.

Except I found out recently that's not how Kiva actually works. Not quite.