Helping others buy local — where it’s needed most

Jefferson Dodge | Boulder Weekly

While a lot of emphasis is placed on buying local and keeping our hard-earned dollars in Boulder County this holiday season, there is another way to give a meaningful gift without pouring money into the coffers of giant corporations.

And it helps stimulate economies in underdeveloped countries.

It’s a program called “Spread the Joy” from the nonprofit Opportunity International that allows people to buy gift cards online to fund microloans for entrepreneurs in Third World nations.

The cards, which can be given as gifts in increments of as little as $10 and as much as $350, are targeted to a cause of the recipient’s choice.

Gift givers visit to purchase the tax-deductible card, which can be printed, emailed or mailed. Gift recipients then visit the same website to redeem the card and fund a loan to an entrepreneur profiled on the site whose business they’d like to invest in. Users can select from hundreds of people around the world operating a wide variety of businesses in 20 different countries. And once the gift card is redeemed, the recipient can receive updates on the entrepreneur whose loan they funded.

Mary Schweitzer of Boulder, who serves on the Board of Governors of Opportunity International for Colorado, says about 85 percent of the loans are awarded to women in poverty-stricken areas because they tend to be the most marginalized, are most likely to repay the loan, and usually re-invest what they earn in their communities.

For instance, Schweitzer says, a woman starting a small business might hire a neighbor to help her, creating a positive economic ripple effect that spreads around the community.

She visited Colombia in 2009 to see the results of the loans up close.

“It was so heartwarming to see these people,” she told Boulder Weekly. “They are so enthusiastic and work so hard. … A lot of them couldn’t afford to put their children into school.”

For example, one woman in the Philippines who sells clothing needed $350 to purchase more ready-to-wear clothing and a tricycle to grow her business. Another woman in Nicaragua started a tortilla business with her loan and used proceeds to build a roof on her home and send her kids to school.

The loans range from $25 to $350, and the average amount is $150. Recipients pay interest equal to the going rate in their country, and they meet with other loan recipients weekly to make payments and encourage one another. Once the entrepreneur repays the loan, the money is loaned again to change the life of another entrepreneur. Recipients can even get insurance and savings accounts through the program.

“It’s very empowering,” Schweitzer says. “I’m really passionate about this work because it’s making transformational changes in the developing world.”

About 2.5 million people have received loans from Opportunity International over the organization’s 40-year history. For more stories about the recipients and how they used their loans, see