A loan through Kiva is something I've wanted to do for a long time. Soap Queen blog posted about it this morning and reminded me. You can start with as little as $25.
It's different from normal charitable donations- in this case, it's not a donation, it's a loan. (And since the default rate is very very low- you have a pretty good chance of it TRULY being a loan, and getting the money back) These loans won't earn you interest, though the lenders do charge interest to the entrepreneur. After Grameen (?) bank won the Nobel Prize, microloans became very interesting to me. I'm so happy to have finally gotten involved with the idea. If my $25 is repaid, I will give it right back out again. I love that the same money can keep working for people who need it over and over. Kiva even offers gift certificates- so your recipient can choose who they want to fund. A cool spin on "a donation in your name"
The group I gave to is looking for money to buy wool for sweater knitting. There are so many loans I decided to use my interest to help narrow it down. Kiva rates the lending partners, so you have an idea of the risk of the loan. You can also look at the history of loans that have defaulted to get an idea too. Many loans being repaid have a journal of sorts that tells you how the money is being used. These are real people, and it's making a real difference.
I've read a lot of critisim of the micro-loan saying that they only help individuals, and not the country- because the entrepeneurs won't ever hire an employee, therefore building the economy. But you've got to start somewhere, and this is something I can do to help someone.