Annual Gift Guide 2008: Gifts to Give Back

See also Gifts You Buy and Gifts You Make.

As always, I'm going to urge everyone to support the Heifer Fund. Heifer is the most ingeniously-designed charity ever: Families in developing countries apply to the program, and are given a starter animal that is native to their area (unless the local stock has been depleted from in-breeding, in which case they get one of that animal but better stock) and training in best practices to care for that animal. Then they promise to give back the first offspring of that animal to another family in the community. That animal and any offspring after the first they use to feed their children and sell to make some extra income.

It helps families improve their lives without taking them out of their local cultures, allows them to help other members of their communities, and creates a network of animal husbandry experts in the same area who can work with each other.

When you donate to Heifer, you get to pick what you want to donate (the money technically goes into the general fund for one of the areas, but you donate enough for the cost of one animal or group) from a list of things like a cow, flocks of chicks, hives of bees, etc. It's an awesome gift, because it truly does become way more than the money you spend, and enables families to stay together, and at the same time the recipient in your life can imagine the animals. Check out the entire catalog here.

What else do you guys give to? Local groups? Other international groups? Are you doing any giving that doesn't involve money? Making things to donate?

Would you guys like to do some kind of service project here? I've been thinking about something like sending cards to US troops in Iraq, but wonder if that would bug readers who aren't American.

49 thoughts on “Annual Gift Guide 2008: Gifts to Give Back”

  1. Last year we contributed a ‘Mother and Child’ gift from the Trocaire charity gift plan is like Heifer’s, and there are 9 gifts to choose from. The Mother and child particularly supports midwifery training in the 3rd world, which really resonates with me. We’ll probably do the same this year.
    Too late for this year, but another thing I’ve done for the last few years is Operation Christmas Child
    You get a shoe box, cover it in Christmas paper and fill it with toys and goodies for a child. They have a list of recommended items, and I usually put in toothbrush, soap etc as well as pencils, toys, a small ball, paper and a few ‘pretties’, if its for a girl. Many schools and children’s groups do it, because it is a small thing which makes a huge difference and children really love to get involved with it. The boxes go to Europe and Africa and are often the only gift the children there get all year. The organising charity is Samaritan’s Purse, which I think is in the U.S. as well as Europe.

  2. My little one’s day care is doing a change drive to Heifer International which I think is an awesome idea!We always do adopt a family here locally. I try to pick a family similar to ours so the kids can pick out something for someone their age.
    In addition to our pretty regular food donations to various food drives, we are making a donation to the local food bank.
    Finally, I bought a whole box of fairly generic holiday cards to send to recovering servicepeople at Walter Reed. I would absolutely be interested in having an Ask Moxie service project.

  3. I support 4 people in Africa. Two of them are single mothers who are going to the university to better their lives and those of their children. Christmas doesn’t mean the same over there as it does here. It’s not a huge, commercial holiday. The other two are a little boy and his sister. Their mother is illiterate and their father is mentally ill. This way, they have a chance at life. The little money that I send pays for their school, which gives them breakfast and lunch. It also is enough to put some away into their savings account. This whole affair only costs 2000 per year, and goes straight there. I use no charity, so there is no overhead.When I went to college, I was a single mother on welfare and I promised myself that I would help if I ever could. Well I can and I do.

  4. We annually participate in a Christmas adopt-a-family through our chuch, which includes both clothes, toys and other gifts and a food basket. We’ve always involved our kids in the shopping/wrapping/preparing process, and this year M (5.5) is even using some of her money to purchase a small gift.Throughout the year we also participate in food and clothing drives at both of their schools for local banks and shelters and together make meals for our area’s equivelent of meals on wheels that are distributed through our church.(Easiest and nicest use of leftovers ever!) For me and D, this type of giving is particularly rewarding because we can do it as a family. We also make cash donations throughout the year, mostly to church or Catholic Charities related and local projects. This year I am planning to donate $ to a local food bank too, since I keep reading that they can stretch $ much further than any food donation wecould give.
    I think a group service project is a great idea.

  5. Yes, Heifer International – such a great idea, and a great gift.Also check out, which uses your donation to fund microbusiness loans to people (mostly women) in the Third World. Like Heifer, Kiva keeps on giving in such a great way – once the loan you choose is repaid, you (or your gift recipient) can choose a new fundee. The $50 gift we received last Christmas has now been loaned out – and repaid! – twice, and we’re about to loan it out a third time.

  6. I listened to this story on the radio program This American Life on NPR. It’s about this INCREDIBLE program called the harlem Children’s zone with a program called baby college. Download the program and listen to the first 30 minutes (the first story of three in the program) and I defy you not to send money to this organization. I listen to the program while i knit christmas presents!
    They teach parents who were never taught by their own parents how to parent — to talk to their babies, read to their babies, not to hit them etc. all having to do with brain development in the first three years. and the program works wonders, it changes the cycle of poverty, early pregnancies, high school drop outs. It is so much about what we speak about here.
    Here;s the link for the harlem children’s zone project.
    read their website. but listen to the story on NPR. it will make you feel so happy to know this program exists!

  7. Last year it was Roots and Shoots, Jane Goodall’s foundation that helps people in areas where great apes live; in this case, the money went to oil palm plantations. My husband’s family has this “Secret Santa” thing where each adult gives one gift to another in the pool, randomly selected by my MIL. The gifts are always given from a wishlist, so I am always able to specify the projects I’d like to sponsor. Heifer is invariably on that list! I like the work they do.

  8. I like Heifer, but my sister (who does charitable analysis for her clients, since she’s way up in the hierarchy of people who ‘help folks with loads of money give money to others’ prefers agencies that have less money going to glossy paper, and more to the programs.I’m going to be late if I don’t leave NOW, so I’ll post links to her favorites later (tonight or tomorrow).

  9. My family sends one big lump sum every year to Sustainable Harvest International. We chose them because food and poverty are my priorities, my husband wanted something good for the planet, it got four stars on Charity Navigator, and we can donate easily online.

  10. I suggest as an alternative to Heifer International, especially for vegetarians!At our house, we support certain charities year-round rather than wait til the holidays, although if we get extra cash at holiday time, we donate 10% of that as well. We’re just not big holiday people, so we figure we’ll spread it out.
    We support:
    Equality Now (, which works for international women’s rights, especially in areas like Female Genital Mutilation and stoning deaths.
    Doctors Without Borders (
    Oxfam (
    Local animal shelter
    Local food pantry

  11. Our support is a bit closer to home. We donate in memory of our daughter to the children’s hospital where she spent time. At Christmas, they put out a wish list, so we buy from it as well (usually books from their library).When my son get a little older, I want to have him buy presents “for” his sister and donate them. Any ideas as to what age he might get the donating idea?

  12. books in b&n from the tree to the child on the card – do y’all know what i’m talking about? there’s a tree in the store with cards with children’s name, age, and interests and you shop for books they’d like.last year, we gave books to the nicu he spent so much time in, one for each family, some in spanish. that was officially for his birthday, but that’s dec 1.
    every year for the last 2, until he’s 13, i give money to a state park in florida i love.
    for those of you who collect ‘freebies’ from hotels, consider giving them to a homeless shelter or women’s shelter or mental health center.

  13. We will donate MUCH closer to home, litterally about 10 blocks away, to “NAMI” which is a charity that benefits the mentally ill. They run a thrift shop in our neighborhood where I have both dropped off and purchased items before.Mostly, I want to donate something other than my outgrown clothes (read: money) there because the woman who runs it works tirelessly to help out a class of people who can’t always get jobs or basic sustenance. NAMI provides advocacy and support for the mentally ill both financially and also in person-by-person ways like giving somebody a job for a few hours a week, etc.

  14. Second the recommendation for It rivals, if not surpasses Heifer, because it is a reusable help. And it makes a fun gift, because the receiver gets to choose who to sponsor.The way it works is you pay some amount (as little as $25) and give the donation as a gift. The receiver gets to go online and choose who to lend that money to. Then when (if, I guess) the lendee pays back the loan, the receiver gets to choose again. Pretty cool — my brother and his wife got it for my mom for her birthday in September.
    I’ve already talked about our family tradition with the Christmas family instead of buying for each other. (Short version: We adopt a Christmas family, shop separately, then get together for wrapping instead of unwrapping.) We’ve been hearing so much about the increased demand for basic needs (shelter, food) this year, that we’re going to use our cash for a good-sized food bank donation instead. Seems like the right thing to do.
    Another thing we’ve done: Buy and donate something to Toys For Tots. Take a picture first (or find one online), then make a scroll with an explanation and give that. My parents in particular like this one. We’ve done one from each kid, and we choose something our kid and the grandparents would like — that way there’s a connection for them.
    The hubby used to be a volunteer firefighter (they collected Toys for Tots) and he said their greatest need is for gifts for adolescents. Costco sells two-packs of movie passes at a discount. A great gift for a teenager you don’t know (or maybe for a teenager you do know!)

  15. I am always so conflicted over how to set my priorities when making a charitable donation. Do I try to help people right here in my community, or in far-off places less fortunate than the metro-area suburbs? Send it to those who need food, right now, or to a cause that is less immediate but so very important, too? And so on. And researching the organization I finally do decide on can get so daunting.How do you all decide?!

  16. I think a group project sounds great (and fun) – thanks Moxie.I’m so glad this post came up – I was thinking of doing the “sponsoring a family” type thing with my boys this year (they are 3 and might start to get it). Anyway, how does one go about finding a family?

  17. A service project would be great, but I don’t think that… as a foreign national I can send mail to American troops. I wouldn’t be opposed to the idea, but I remember we tried to send a care package once to an American troop and it was rejected since we lived abroad.

  18. A service project would be great, but I don’t think that… as a foreign national I can send mail to American troops. I wouldn’t be opposed to the idea, but I remember we tried to send a care package once to an American troop and it was rejected since we lived abroad.

  19. We always donate to Child’s Play, a group of people who enjoy video games that want to help kids in Children’s Hospitals have fun toys. ( They set up Amazon Wish Lists for all the Hospitals participating, then you can go through and choose what you want to send.This year, we’re going to do cards for Operation Holiday Card. This is a charity set up by a friend of mine who’s husband was stationed in Iraq for a time (over the holidays). She collects cards (Christmas, Hanukah, generic) and sends them in one big chunk. (

  20. My favorite charity is Donors Choose, where you sponsor a classroom project for a teacher. They are now all over the country, so you can fund a project in your local area, or you can fund a project based on a subject area, like science or literacy.When you sponsor a project, you get thank you notes from the teacher and the students, which are so fun to read. I donated money to buy SAT prep materials for a high school classroom in Brooklyn, and they sent me awesome letters full of the new words they learned.

  21. I’ve made this season one about hunger relief for my donations. So far I’ve donated to two local food service organizations (one for the regional food bank, and one which makes and delivers meals to homebound patients) and two international organizations. I think we are going for one more, and might look into donation as a gift to our mothers. I”m eager to hear Hedra’s recommendations as well, because I chose my international donations based largely on the % of money that goes to aid.

  22. Also, @Olivia, we do donations to Donors Choose as well for gifts “in honor of” all the teachers in my family. We look for their former or current school districts or favorite subjects. It’s great.

  23. Question: I love giving to worthy charities. However, I’ve been dismayed in recent years about scandals, etc. related to certain charities. And, I prefer charities that get the most bang for the buck (low admin costs).How do I know what fits the bill? Is there a resource I can check?

  24. My favorite charity is Babushka Adoption, an organization that supports the elderly in Kyrgyzstan:
    These are people who are living on $10-20/month, who put a lifetime of labor into the Communist system, only to find out they wouldn’t get their promised rewards at the end. The small amount of support really makes a difference for them. I met the first babushka I supported and verified that the money really does go where it is promised to.

  25. @Tamar, my mom has a charitable fund (letting us play with the money she’d give to charity in her will, but before she dies so she can watch us play), and we decide annually what areas to focus on, first. That helps us focus our attention. It’s somewhat a ‘pick one’ issue, but since we’re working many people into the decision, it is essential for reducing the amount of stress around ‘who to help FIRST?’Currently:
    1 Global/Peace/Human Rights/Hunger issue
    1 Environmental
    1 Domestic
    This year, we donated to help a girl’s school in Afganistan, supported someone getting an organ transplant in the US, and supported a trial of innoculating frogs (with a bacterial agent that transmits naturally) to prevent infection with the fungus that is killing them off globally (Smithsonian work). Amphibian die-off is kinda scary, but if they can stop it… they only need something like 1.5 million TOTAL, which is a pittance, and could have a baseline powerful impact on the world environment. So, we put a little toward that. The fun is SMALL, unfortunately, and the market hasn’t helped. Sigh.
    Each year we discuss what the priorities are, and then throw out some ideas, then pick and choose. Most of my sibs don’t much care which, because everything needs help. One sib is highly oriented toward US/domestic issues, one is more international (leveraging US funds against poverty abroad is quite powerful), several are environmental or women’s issues oriented, etc. (Lots of sibs.)
    Anyway, to decide, we choose each year to split the funds to a certain size, and determine how many donations that means, and then select who gets it.
    ***Knowing that it is a repeating process helps reduce stress over which to donate to now – next year will also have choices to make, and there is much need everywhere.*** (Maybe if you think in terms of ‘this is an ongoing process, this year my energy is here, next year I can choose again’ it may make it easier to select for this year?)
    We keep track of where the donations go, so we can cover gaps over time. The point is to make the donations count (effective) now, keep the leverage on powerfully without waste (prudent), and touch on things we care about most (true to ourselves). That tends to tilt us toward agencies that rank well in listings of charities (like, etc.), and lean toward international or global (foundation-change) issues – but we also include whatever affected us recently, moved us, etc. It’s okay to follow those gut reactions, too. Choosing to select a limited set and then do so again and again makes it feel better than saying ‘everyone needs help, I only have so much to give, I don’t know where to put it first!’ (which I’ve felt, especially since the fund has more money to give than I do personally, even if it is still not enough to get a name on a plaque or anything)
    (Nutmeg’s route is exactly what I’m talking about – select a zone, then it gets easier to choose what to do.)

  26. @Jen, the site is one of the standard resources. I’ll see if I can find the others my sister uses, over the weekend.

  27. @Tamar, not so absurd.I’ve been having a similar conflict….we have given to Doctors Without Borders for years, as well as supporting projects in Nicaragua that a local pediatrician (and former teacher of mine) volunteers for yearly. But this year I’ve felt such a pull to put our donations into our surrounding communities, with all of the trouble that local families are finding themselves in these days with the current economic changes. So I think we’ll try and refocus our efforts a bit more locally. We’re thinking baking cookies with my 2 year old and sending them out with a donation in the name of each recipient to a local hunger relief organization. Now just have to figure out which….

  28. I agree – not absurd, Tamar. It means you take it seriously, and know – and FEEL – the level of need out there, and understand the value your donation could create. Having less to give makes it feel important to make the money really WORK, but honestly, it is *always* important to choose carefully where your donations go. There is no point wasting any of it. Most people don’t bother thinking that far, and that’s why there are so many bogus groups out there – they can draw on the people who didn’t think twice, just gave because it sounded like a good cause.

  29. @hedra, great that you helped with the frogs. Just as Palin blasted fruit fly research, I think many don’t understand the impact that, say, a loss of amphibians worldwide would have on the rest of us. Or bees. Or, well, anything but mosquitos. Good on yer.

  30. personally speaking, I’m all for sending letters to service-people. If they’re collected in the US, they could come internationally, I suspect. A niece and nephew have both enlisted with the Army recently. The niece is going in after college, the nephew is in now, and staying. Army airborne infantry. He’s likely headed to Afghanistan or Iraq after Christmas. So, that’s kind of a personal thing for me.

  31. Hedra, good to know, I used charity navigator and charitywatch (dot) org to pick my international charities. charity watch doesn’t allow you to see EVERY charity in the world, but you can see the ratings it gives to the top rated charities, so it’s good for that. I cross checked with both when I selected to be sure I was making a good decision.I hope everyone has a really nice holiday season.

  32. I want to put in my vote for KIVA. Through an organization to which I belong, we have given $200.- to be lent to women in 3rd worlds. That small amount gets divided between several women and when it gets paid back, which is has every time, it goes right back out to somebody else.And yes, I am all for a group project.

  33. It’s a beautiful thing to see such kindness. I recently adopted a soldier and an Army SSG and his soldiers (in Iraq). With friends from work we’re sending care packages hoping they arrive before Christmas. I would join in a group effort here as well!The organizations I’m working with have been great. If anyone wants info, email me at jacksonthedog at verizon dot net.
    Wishing everyone a peaceful holiday season.

  34. Annual Fund donations to local cultural institutions top my list. We are members at a few – but I know they really are hurting now, and staff are losing their jobs here in Chicago. So….I think our funds will go to a few of our favorites in honor of grandparents.

  35. i’m late but i’m putting my vote in for Kiva. Heifer is good as well–i’ve lived near communities where they have worked and not heard anything bad said about them on the ground (which certainly does happen about many NGOs). I just think Kiva has a really cool system going on.I”m up for a moxie group project. I could really use some good vibes right now. Collective Being Kind to Others would certainly help.

  36. I always send to Planned Parenthood. Living in Asia, it is very obvious what good PP does, especially when it comes to reducing STIs.I also do a yearly Christmas party at our nearest orphanage. Japanese people do not like adoption and prefer a facility to put children in if they can’t care for them to non-familial adoptions, so there are hundreds of kids in care. I collect books and bring them as gifts, and solicit businesses for donations of new things. Sometimes it’s the only new item the child will ever get.
    My husband does the Santa thing, and we do enjoy the actual day of the holiday party, but it hurts afterwards. We still can’t decide if it’s okay to bring our son, as we don’t want to hurt these kids’ feelings. And since we’ve been applying for 4 years for an adoption and there are still no kids legally free for us, it hurts to get to know them. The hurting reminds us of how much we have, however.

  37. I plan to donate to OrKidstra, a local charity that provides musical instruments and instruction to kids who would otherwise not have the chance participate in musical activities. ( I know many of the people who run the organzation, plus I’m an amateur musician myself, plus this is a local charity — so I think it is a good fit for me.@ramy — The December 2008 issue of Canadian Living has an article about a mom who decided to “give” one good deed a day for each day of December. It’s a heart-warming story of how the little things really do add up.

  38. We donate to a local service organization (in the Boston area) that organizes one day projectsPeople Making a Difference
    pre-kids, we volunteered with them a lot and the focus is on filling a gap that local non-profits need. We also got to know the founder and it’s really run on a shoestring, so I know that ever dollar I contribute is leveraged to provide a lot of good. And hopefully when the kids are a bit bigger they can come volunteer with us on some projects.
    I used to run a community service group, both in college and in grad school, and I have to say as a WOTH mom, I miss that part of my life but cannot find a way to get it back – I know it’s possible to volunteer with very young kids and if I was home with them all week I think I would, but with the limited time we have together now it seems impossible.
    However, I do think (at 3.5) my son is capable of understanding the power of giving, and we plan to take him shopping for a Toy for Toys for Tots and to help him select toys he no longer plays with for another excellent local charity, Cradles to Crayons, which I have volunteered with directly in the past, and our temple currently collects donations for them

  39. For yearsI answered my children when they asked the question “what do you want for_____” with the answer “a donation to charity , preferably one that deals with hunger and livelyhood. This year my children have finally reached the age where theya re listening and making donations, especially to HEIFER, which I agreed has got to be the most ingenious organizatio I have ever encountered…trulya gift that perpetually gives back! What could be better than that! SO in addition to the ususal “Angel Tree” type donations they ar now thining on a much broader scale and I am so please…EVERYONE FIND A CHARITY YOU IDENTOFY WITH AND DONATE – EVEN A VERY SMALL AMOUNT WOULD BE PUT TO GOOD USE!

  40. I am asking everyone I know to check out
    This is a site dedicated to helping out my friend Shannon whose two children, Waverly and Oliver are afflicted with a horrible, fatal genetic condition called Sanfillipo Syndrome. I truly cannot imagine being in Shannon’s situation. All I can think is that it must feel like living in a nightmare you cannot wake up from — watching your children slowly die!
    I’m begging everyone to read the website — and Shannon’s blog (she and her husband Matt are amazing parents)! And help out if you can — even just spreading the word is helpful!

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