In May 2006, eBay quietly acquired a microfinance company called MicroPlace, which it said was part of an "ongoing initiative ... focused on maximizing our corporate resources to continue to drive social good through a variety of innovative programs." A year and a half later, MicroPlace has finally officially opened its doors to investors.

MicroPlace is similar to Kiva.org (which we've written about twice this year), and allows investors in developed nations to support microloans for entrepreneurs in developing areas of the world. The difference between Kiva.org and MicroPlace, is that in eBay's version investors can make a return on their money.

People purchase investments from third-party security issuers like Oikocredit-USA and the Calvert Foundation through MicroPlace. Those security issuers then use the funds to work with local lending organizations who grant loans to working poor in developing nations. Initial loans are typically between $30 and $200 and have 3-6 month repayment plans. Unlike Kiva.org, however, which does not charge interest to borrowers on its loans, eBay's MicroPlace is out to turn a profit while helping people establish credit and start businesses. The microfinance lenders they work with typically charge between 18% and 60% interest on loans, according to the site.

"Capital markets are just waking up to this asset class," Tracey Pettengill Turner, the founder and general manager of MicroPlace, told Reuters. "This is different because it is the first Web-based service for the everyday investor to invest in microfinance, and earn an investment return while addressing global poverty."

It looks like investments on MicroPlace typically pay out 1.5-3.0% per year to investors. That is hardly a mammoth return on your money, but certainly any return might be enough to entice users who were hestitant to tie up their money in riskier, no return investments through sites like Kiva.org. While MicroPlace is less personal -- since you're working with third parties you never get to see directly who is benefiting from your investment (though there are a few borrower profiles available) -- the site does do a good job of getting general information out about financial and social issues in the nations it works with.

Though their approach is different, and perhaps slightly less admirable, than similar web sites, MicroPlace is nonetheless trying to do some good by providing microloans to people in developing nations that need financial assistance. The prospect of making a small return on your investment may attract more users, as well. The net result of that would be more money available for people in poor nations, which is certainly a good thing.