- More charities offer "catalogs" of symbolic holiday gifts
- Choices include livestock or tents for people in need
- You can ask friends and family to buy a symbolic charity gift in lieu of presents
- There are also a variety of presents that donate proceeds to charity
My best friend wants chickens for Christmas -- and maybe a goat.
"It's for a family in Africa," she said, directing me to a charity's online "gift catalog."
I am curious, because she usually picks something out of the Pottery Barn catalog.
"I want a gift that keeps on giving to someone who really needs it," she explained. "I don't need anything."
Just donating money to a charity can be impersonal, and it's difficult to know where your money actually goes. But charity "gift catalogs" give people the ability to quantify their donation and give symbolic gifts.
"These gifts are more fun, more inspiring and more meaningful than most gifts," said Melissa Winkler of the International Rescue Committee.
Aid organizations also hope that getting people to purchase livestock, tents or water supplies for those in need instead of typical holiday gifts will help alleviate the "donor fatigue" that many Americans have experienced after a year of natural disasters and tragedies.
On the International Rescue Committee's gift website, I can buy my friend a flock of chickens, nine hens and a rooster, for $30. The poultry will be sent to a family in Pakistan, where flooding has devastated communities and killed livestock.
A $100 donation on WorldVision.org will give a family a goat and two chickens.
"Goats nourish families with milk, cheese, and yogurt," World Vision's website explains. "Chickens provide fresh eggs and extra eggs and chicks can be sold to pay for basics."
I'm sold, but I'm still shopping.
The Red Cross gift catalog urges people to "give something that means something."
The Red Cross is often the first aid organization on the ground in major tragedies, providing food and shelter in the wake of storms, earthquakes and war. Millions of dollars from the Red Cross Disaster Relief Fund have been used in 2011.
For $50, you can give an emergency kit to a disaster survivor or a comfort kit to a wounded U.S. soldier.
To help a specific group of people, such as the millions displaced by the famine in East Africa, the United Nations refugee agency explains in detail what your donation will provide: $10 gives a family four water cans, while $450 provides a tent to shelter family of five.
Symbolic gifts seem to have a big payoff for charities. Most international, national and even local charities offer "gift catalogs."
For the past two years, the International Rescue Committee has offered a gift catalog, and this year, it has raised more than $100,000, spokeswoman Melissa Winkler says. The average shopper spends about $100, and Winkler says the most popular gift this year is the chickens.
I was surprised how very little money can go a long way. Here are some examples:
• $50 for a full day of emergency shelter (three meals, two blankets, one cot and personal supplies for victims of disasters)
When gifts are dedicated to family and friends, the charity will often mail a beautiful holiday card to your loved ones with a personalized message from you.
In addition to being socially conscious, giving a symbolic gift for the holidays is environmentally friendly.
"We are living in an increasingly eco-conscious world, and items with a lot of packaging that need to be wrapped and mailed are not green," Winkler said.
"Many people who buy gifts from our catalog choose to have the gift card e-mailed. It's perfect for the last-minute shopper."
For those who still want to buy an actual present, there are many options of gifts that give back. TOMS shoes has a One for One program in which the company donates one pair of shoes to a child in need for each pair purchased. If you buy TOMS eyewear, proceeds will provide medical treatment, prescription glasses or sight-saving surgery.
CamelBak will donate $10 from each Groove water bottle to Water.org, a nonprofit organization founded by actor Matt Damon and social entrepreneur Gary White. The charity helps provide global access to clean water.
Oakley is offering special edition sunglasses and, with each purchase, will donate $20 to the Lance Armstrong Foundation, a nonprofit that supports those affected by cancer.
Pro-Flite is offering golf balls printed with a red dress symbolizing the American Heart Association's Go Red for Women heart health campaign. About 25% of proceeds will help fund research and support education and community programming for awareness of the disease.
And Apple is donating a portion of the proceeds from each Product Red special-edition iPod to Africans with AIDS. The donations will go directly to the Global Fund to Fight AIDS.
All the charities mentioned in this article have been vetted by CNN's Impact your World and are reputable, but before you donate to any charity, check out its finances on www.guidestar.org. A good rule of thumb is that 75% of the money the charity raises should go toward programs.
Some retail "tricks" charities are using include gifts if you buy more than a certain amount and buy one get one free. But in the end, it's holiday giving without the blatant commercialism, truly "giving for good." And best of all, no visit to the mall.
And who would have thought that the best presents for a dear friend would include livestock and poultry?