Alternative Gifts: Giving of Yours and Yourself

We have a lot of material crap in the world.  And most of it is distributed extremely unfairly.  For example, some of us have never known what it’s like to be hungry (let alone starving), while a huuuge swath of the world’s population wonders whether their next meal will come at all (let alone where it will come from).

You’ve heard this all before.  Here’s something easy that you can do about it — maybe it will help you come away from the holiday season feeling a bit better about yourself and the world:  Give the people you love an “alternative gift” — a donation in their honor to a cause that you and/or they care about.

Instead of adding more to your material clutter, spread peace and love elsewhere in the world, to people who really could use the help.

You have a few basic options:

  1. Contribute to local causes.  That’s right.  Local.  You don’t have to search the world over to find people or places in need.  Chances are, the need is right there in your own back yard (so to speak).
  2. Your non-local options can be divided into two basic sub-categories:  a.  Humanitarian aid programs b. Community development programs

What’s the difference, you say?

a. Humanitarian aid programs are short-term, immediate responses to crisis situations.  They keep people alive in the short-run, usually after conflict or other disaster has decimated  a place’s social fabric and infrastructure.  They are not, and should never be considered, long-term solutions.

b. Community development programs are place-based capacity building initiatives that are aimed to help a target-population gain economic, social and/or environmental self-sufficiency.  They seek long-term, sustainable solutions to the current and future problems we face.

How do you know who to give to?  Good organizations create and/or support programs that are both efficient and effective.  At least 75% of the money you give should go directly to a program or initiative, and not to administrative overhead or fundraising (often called “organizational development”).  Look for percentages and pie charts which should be available on an org’s website.  Here are my recommendations:

Local:  I am fortunate to be able to utilize WWeek’s GiveGuide.  Maybe your area has something similar.  Ask around.  Even if you don’t live in my area, you can use it as an example of what types of organizations you might be able to find in your area.  It makes your search effort a lot easier if you have something specific you are curious about.


Oxfam International — 80-90% efficient

Mercy Corps — 89% efficient

Heifer International — 75% efficient

AGI (Alternative Gifts International) — 90% efficient

c.  Chances are you have some time, knowledge and/or skills that a local program would love to put to good use!  So remember, volunteering is always an option, and often counts for much more than a monetary donation.  One thing to keep in mind is to try to find something that a. is relevant to your interests, knowledge, expertise, etc b. is something that makes you feel good to do (no matter how difficult it is).  I can’t stress this enough, folks:  volunteers often need to be trained and integrated into the organization, which in itself is a costly investment — and also a risk — that the organization takes.  Which means you need to make a minimum time committment to the gig (such as 6 months).

You don’t have to jump into the deep end immediately!  I’ve found it useful over the years to use online donation guides to learn more about local organizations as I give to them.  When I find ones that I really like, and they have volunteer positions that seem to be a good fit for me, then I take a closer look at them.

One final, more personal note:  I used to hate it when I was younger and my grandparents would give a “stupid gift in my honor” for my birthdya or Christmas rather than buying me something or just giving me the money so I could buy something for myself.  Years later, I’m glad that they instilled that ethic in me.  So even if you have a little one who is kicking and screaming for the latest <video game/power wheels/super soaker>, remember that this is a chance to communicate and pass on your values to the next generation!  They may not thank you now, but they (and the world) will thank you later.


2 Responses to Alternative Gifts: Giving of Yours and Yourself

  1. Lindsay G says:

    I volunteer with ChristmasFuture, a great organization that offers a different way to give during the holiday season. ChristmasFuture is an innovative, online, non-profit that offers people an opportunity to give online gift cards, which help eradicate extreme poverty.100% of money raised goes towards international development projects. Project updates are provided online, in the form of blog posts, videos, and photos. We’re online at

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