What: Putting a few dollars into a microfinance account to loan capital to a small businessperson (usually a businesswoman) in a poor nation, through a secular organization like Kiva or a religious group like World Relief. This video by the folks at Difted shows how World Relief’s microfinance program works in Earth’s poorest nation, Burundi:

Why: In the holiday season, thoughts turn to giving. But the world’s problems are large, and we are small. One method of attacking these problems is to give to a charity, for what one cannot accomplish alone, perhaps thousands or millions can. But a less obvious method is a fairly new style of giving called microfinance. The credit crunch of the last year has shown everyone how important free-flowing credit is to an economy. Now imagine how limitations on credit would affect a country where no one is rich enough to lend. Microfinance attempts to resolve this dilemma like this: You go onto a website like kiva.org and select a business in a developing country. You then deposit an amount of money, perhaps $25, through PayPal, which waives its fees. With the massive difference in exchange rate, that $25 loan is the equivalent of hundreds or even thousands of dollars in the recipient country. The recipient person or group takes the grubstake money and puts it to work. And then they pay it back. You can watch online as your tiny (to you) debt is repaid, and when it is entirely repaid, you can take it back or lend it to someone else. The organizations build self-reinforcing collectives among borrowers, so that if one borrower doesn’t pay, all the remaining borrowers are stuck with the debt. This means that only responsible parties get loans. That simple process has allowed Kiva to put $87 million into needy people’s hands, and more than 98 percent of it has returned to the lenders. That’s not charity, that’s just good business.

Impact: About $25 billion in investment in the last few decades. That’s a lot of money, but it’s still a trickle compared to the need. The real impact comes not on the macro level, but unsurprisingly on the micro level. The lender isn’t faceless to the borrower, and the borrower isn’t faceless to the lender. In some ways, it’s “SimBank.” Since banks have taken a righteously deserved reputation hit lately, haven’t you thought that if it was your money, you could do a whole lot better? With microfinancing, you can. Think of it as your own personal TARP fund, only a million billion times more likely to help.

Personal Connection: Evon keeps up our Kiva loans to women in Peru, Tajikistan, the Philippines, and Cambodia, and she smiles every time she checks the balances, which are between 30 and 100 percent repaid at this point. For my part, I know many of the people associated with the World Relief program, including Don Golden, WR’s senior vice president of church engagement; Rob Bell, the preacher describing microfinance in the video above; and Sam Sanchez, the video’s director. When we worked on Citizens of Virtue, I tried to cram microfinancing down the ARG community’s throats, with limited success. Now, in the spirit of Christmas, I’m cramming it down your throat. Come on along; you’ll be glad you did.

Other Contenders: contribute to a heifer pool, buying a goat or cow for a family or village in a poverty-stricken country; adopt an endangered animal, saving a tiger, polar bear, orca, or other threatened animal from the brink of extinction; give up plastic, seeing what happens if you don’t add to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, now twice the size of Texas; mentor a student or disadvantaged person without ever leaving your house, through the use of e-mentor websites; make a commitment to put aside fear and offer to help any motorist in trouble; above all, refuse to be terrorized.