Changing the World, One Gift at a Time

Here we are: the holidays. Every year, I promise myself I'll stay clear of the malls, avoiding the crowds and commercialism that seem to be a mainstay from November 1 on. Yet inevitably I, like many others, get immersed in the last-minute frenzy of it all. I usually find myself in one store or another, pushing past a mosh pit of mothers and sons and brothers -- all on a similar mission. We all need to find the perfect gift, and we need to find it now.

But what is the perfect gift, especially when most everyone we know has more than enough?

Making a gift to charity in someone else's name is a way to honor someone you care about while making your dollars do good. Consider this: For the cost of dinner and a movie, you can help provide permanent access to clean water in an Andes village or building supplies for victims of Hurricane Katrina. What's more, you can match your gift to the personality of your recipient. For example, if your Aunt Betty is a big fan of protecting the environment, you might purchase 50 trees in Haiti on her behalf, or solar cookers for the Lakota Sioux.

This type of charitable giving is nothing new. For decades, individual donors have given gifts of charity in the name of a loved one or through their place of worship. What is new is the number of organizations that now offer alternative gift catalogs -- most of them online. Why the trend? Why now?

"We all experience some form of holiday fatigue," said Paulette Song, spokeswoman for Oxfam America Unwrapped, one of many alternative gift catalogs. "Alternative giving helps alleviate some of the gift anxiety and give something more meaningful."

Most organizations agree that donations increase during the holidays; however, they see people making alternative gifts for any occasion, all through the year.

"These days, there's a lot of bad news out there," said Meredith Landis, marketing associate for With one global emergency after the next, people have a greater desire to do something about it. "It may sound like a cliché, but alternative gifts make the world better. They empower people to make a difference and share that feeling with someone else," said Landis.

Certainly, when others in our world and our country still have so little, maybe it's time we draw the line on what constitutes enough for our family and friends -- and put our gifts where they are needed most.

One gift may not change the world overnight. But it's a start.

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Based in Kula, Hawaii, Elaine Gast is a writer and communications consultant for nonprofits, foundations, membership associations, businesses, and individuals. She has authored six books, contributed to Fodor's Travel Publications, and published articles in numerous magazines and newspapers. Elaine is president of Four Winds Writing, Inc.