Have you ever heard of micro-finance institutions (MFI's)? Neither had I until recently when I read an article about them in my business school magazine. Sounds kind of dull, doesn't it? That is, until you understand what they're about. In a nutshell? They make small loans (under $1000 usually) to people for whom it will make a big difference. A vendor in Asia who needs $100 to repair his cart and stay in business. A Guatemalan shop owner who can support her whole family by expanding her offerings at a cost of $250.
The point is, these people's lives can be improved radically with just a small amount of investment. But they fall below the threshold for conventional banking loans. So MFI's fill that gap.
I learned in this same article of a non-profit MFI called Kiva, that in their words: "lets you lend to a specific entrepreneur in the developing world - empowering them to lift themselves out of poverty". The way it works is you log on to their web site, kiva.org, read the stories of businesses in need, choose one to support and contribute via credit card payment through kiva. Typical loan periods are 6-12 months, after which your money will return to you (no, you don't receive interest - I believe that's how kiva generates income to keep running). And the default rate is incredibly low - 0.2% on over $2 million in completed loans.
Okay, I realize it might sound like a scam. But with appearances on Oprah and the Today Show, and support from President Clinton, I think they're legit.
What does this have to do with Christmas? Well, I've put a kiva gift certificate on my wish list. Just think of the joy that would come from being part of helping someone make a better life for themselves. And with that money coming back to me later, I could do it over and over again. In fact, I think I'd like that as a Christmas gift every year so that I could compound the impact. Plus it's a great antidote to my problem of "too much stuff".