Is microfinance a good bet for a donor? We feel the answer is complicated, and that the many extreme exaggerations of microfinance’s impact get in the way of making an informed decision.

This post summarizes the differences between the stories you’ve probably heard and the reality according to available evidence.

Myth #1: the way microfinance charities help is by giving people loans to expand businesses. Success stories like Andrea’s, Lucas’s and Sophia’s are representative.

Reality: there isn’t much reliable information on how people are using loans, but the evidence there is suggests that “microloans” are often used for consumption purposes: food, visits to the doctor, etc. This isn’t a bad thing - the poorest people in the world face considerable financial uncertainty, and loans can empower them to manage their own lives.

So, however, can savings, which some scholars feel are more beneficial for the poor than loans. Funding institutions to help people save may not have the same sex appeal as “lending your money to help people grow their businesses,” but it might do more good.

For more, see:

Myth #2 The best way to support microfinance is to lend your money to specific individuals.
Reality: Choosing your own borrowers is not really possible or desirable. The recent debate over (summarized by GiveWell Board member Tim Ogden) makes clear that even when your donation is “officially” matched to a borrower, you’re really funding an institution. And as we discuss immediately below, this is likely a good thing.

Myth #3: a gift to a microfinance charity gets lent out again and again, making its impact essentially infinite.
Reality: Many of the most important challenges of microfinance (such as developing effective outreach, creating incentives for repayment, and helping people to save as well as borrow) involve significant institutional expenses. (See our discussion with David Roodman as well as any microfinance charity’s budget.)

Myth #4: microfinance has been shown to reduce poverty.
Reality: many studies on the impact of microfinance have been done, but most have serious and widely recognized flaws. The few - and recent - stronger studies show mixed effects. The most encouraging effects are for programs that don’t fit the traditional “lend to expand a business” story.

Details at our post on evidence of impact for microfinance charities.

Myth #5: a high repayment rate means that things are going well and clients are benefiting from loans.
Reality: the repayment rate can be both technically and conceptually misleading. See our post on why the repayment rate may not mean what you think it means.

Myth #6: microfinance works because of (a) the innovative “group lending” method; (b) targeting of women, who use loans more productively than men; (c) targeting of the poorest of the poor, who benefit most from loans.
Reality: all three of these claims are often repeated but (as far as we can tell) never backed up. The strongest available evidence is limited, but undermines all three claims.

Bottom line: should you give to a microfinance charity?

We feel that the marketing of microfinance is exaggerated, excessive, and full of unsupported myths - to a degree unusual even in the world of fundraising.

Once you put these myths out of your head, the fact remains that microfinance institutions are often working with people in extreme poverty and empowering them to better manage their own financial lives. The fact remains that high numbers of clients for a product that costs clients money (interest) - while not necessarily demonstrating positive impact - suggest that MFIs are offering something clients want. All in all, this is more than most charitable causes can say for themselves.

We feel that global health is a better area for a donor overall, especially because we have identified outstanding charities in global health that have far more to recommend them than any microfinance charity we’ve seen to date. We continue to search for an outstanding microfinance charity (through methods including our ongoing grant application). Make sure you’re signed up for updates (or following our blog or Twitter) and you’ll know if and when we find one.

GiveWell is an independent, nonprofit charity evaluator. We perform in-depth research on charities to help people accomplish as much good as possible with their donations. Unlike existing evaluators, which focus solely on financials, assessing administrative or fundraising costs, we focus on how well programs actually work – i.e., their effects on the people they serve.

This blog entry can be found originally on GiveWell's blog