Abby Gray/Kiva

Until the Dream Team test, microfinance had never been applied to the worldwide, Facebook-era Web quite like this.

“It worked great,” says Kiva president Premal Shah. “We trusted the church pastor. These seven people were part of his congregation, and they’re the ones who were proof of the concept that you could do this kind of Internet lending. We expanded from there.”

After one year, Kiva crossed its $1 million loan threshold, followed by a growth spurt of successive benchmarks (it reached $100 million in 2009) alongside accolades from Bill Clinton, a place on Oprah’s Favorite Things list and a Skoll Award for Social Entrepreneurship. In its fifth year, Kiva broadened its reach by posting its first student loans (helping families afford school fees around the world) and water loans (supporting access to clean water).

Today, more than $450 million has been loaned through Kiva, with around 960,000 participants funding more than half a million microloans at last count. Average loan size: $408. Average number of loans made per Kiva lender: 9.76. Many of these numbers keep changing, in the right direction, at Internet speeds. But the most impressive metric of all remains fairly static: the repayment rate.

According to Kiva statistics, more than 99 percent of its loans are fully repaid, a number that hasn’t budged much at all. In a world full of doomed economies, ill-fated businesses, hard-luck stories, bankruptcies, foreclosures and the occasional deadbeat or two, one might wonder how a near-perfect repayment record is possible in a global lending platform serving any financial bracket, let alone the lowest rungs.

Part of the answer lies in the fact that many of the loans available for funding on Kiva.org are extended to groups of people who vouch for each other and rely on old-school safeguards like shared trust and responsibility — a model developed by microfinance forefather Yunus. Also, Kiva carefully vets every microfinance institution (an umbrella term for various organizations offering financial resources in low-income communities) that it partners with to ensure client protection and offer additional on-site support services like financial literacy.

But, still — 99 percent?

“It’s really a testament to a couple of things,” Shah says. “One is that the poor are credit-worthy if a loan can be structured in an appropriate way. Two, this is character-based lending, not credit-score lending. In the places where we work, including the U.S., the credit score either doesn’t exist or doesn’t tell you the full picture of the person’s ability to repay. So you’re looking at people as opposed to scores.”