Why give a Shetland sweater to your cousin in Chicago when for half the price you can gift the entire sheep in your cousin’s name to a village in Sudan and save lives?

That’s the philosophy behind charitable organizations like Heifer Intl. and Oxfam America Unwrapped. Not that it’s an either/or proposition, mind you. I’m sure your cousin would appreciate the knitwear as well.

Heifer Intl. began with a Midwestern farmer named Dan West, who got the idea when he was a relief worker during the Spanish Civil War. He thought: Why not provide a long-term source of food to needy people rather than a short-term handout?

“Each family who receives an animal agrees to pass on the gift by donating their knowledge, skills and the animal’s first offspring to another needy family,” says Pamela K. Stone, Heifer’s Southwest regional director. “We don’t just provide food but bestow a sense of dignity, self-reliance and hope. We’re truly the gift that keeps on giving.”

Not only is Heifer Intl. singled out in Bill Clinton’s book “Giving” but the org boasts a flock of celebrity supporters including Oprah Winfrey, Meryl Streep, Bruce Willis, Susan Sarandon, Ted Danson and Mary Steenburgen.

“At holiday time, when materialism proliferates, Heifer is a gift that satisfies the original intention of true benefit for all,” says supporter Diane Lane. “If we can spare suffering in the world, anywhere possible, is that not the golden rule?”

Oxfam is another relief organization committed to ending hunger, poverty and injustice. Although Oxfam, like Heifer, has a gift catalog, purchases are symbolic and donations go where needed most. Families in more than 26 countries (including the U.S.) are recipients.

Felicity Huffman, Kristin Davis (she toured South Africa with Oxfam) and Minnie Driver are among the org’s big supporters. “OxfamAmericaUnwrapped.com is a fun way to give gifts that help people to help themselves,” says Driver. “This year I’m only asking Santa for camels and outhouses. I’m sure the elves will be puzzled.”

How to gift animals and save lives

Step 1: Go to heifer.org or oxfamamericaunwrapped.org and select the animal you want to gift (heifer, sheep, llama, goat, camel, water buffalo, geese, honeybees and more.)

Step 2: Send a holiday card from the website to the gift’s recipient.

Step 3: Pay, then pat yourself on the back for being a decent — no, darn-right good — person.


It’s the season to give, but before you do, make sure the org you donate to puts its money where its mouth is. Laurie Styron, an analyst for CharityWatch.org, warns, “Any organization that fills out the proper tax forms can call itself a charity even if only 1% of donations go to active programs.”

Styron advises taking the following measures before you donate.

  • Make sure the org has both online and bricks-and-mortar addresses.

  • Request written literature and a copy of the charity’s annual report.

  • Don’t give cash.

  • Keep paper copies of all of your transactions.

  • Make sure they have a secure website.

  • Find out where your money is going.