The gift of philanthropy

So what do you give this holiday to the person who has everything — or simply doesn't need more things?

Consider the gift of philanthropy.

Charities are making it easier than ever. Many offer gift cards that recipients can use to make online donations to specific projects in their own backyard or across the globe. Donations can be small, with some groups accepting as little as $1 or $10.

"Not everyone is a Bill Gates who can influence society on such a massive scale," says Bennett Weiner, chief operating officer with the BBB Wise Giving Alliance, part of the Better Business Bureau. Charities are trying to connect with small donors to show that even tiny gifts can make a difference, he says.

This type of philanthropy, which allows donors to direct money to particular needs, appeals particularly to younger donors, who want to see how their money is used, says Ken Berger, president of Charity Navigator, an organization that rates charities. While nonprofits still need traditional donations to cover administrative and fundraising costs, this kind of philanthropy has proven popular and is a growing trend.

As always, check out a charity before giving, through a website such as or And be aware that gift cards expire, in which case unused funds might go to the nonprofit or be directed to a project of the charity's choosing.

Lots of nonprofits offer giving opportunities and can use the help. Here are just a few: 

Helping teachers help kids Public schools are financially stretched, but with, you can directly donate to class projects across the country. Teachers, from kindergarten through high school, and other school officials post their unfunded needs online and explain how their students would benefit from a donation.

Breanne Edmonds, a science teacher at Harlem Park Elementary/Middle School in Baltimore, recently requested $690 for two Bunsen burners and two balances to weigh materials. In her post, Edmonds noted that the school is "a safe zone for many of the students" and that the youngsters are "eager to learn new and exciting things."

Her request was funded by nine donors within a month. "It's like a miracle," says Edmonds, who has received funding three other times for books and microscope slides. This time the donations came in faster than they had before.

The donation is a big help to Edmonds, who figures she spends $3,500 a year of her own money on school supplies. "Every week I'm buying something," the 26-year-old says. "It adds up."

Educators must clear certain hurdles and be vetted to get a project posted on Once a project is funded, teachers and students are required to send thank-you notes to donors, along with photos of the children using their new materials, says Thalia Theodore Washington, the website's East Coast vice president.

You can also buy a DonorsChoose gift card, which allows your friends and family members to pick the projects they want to help fund. The minimum donation is $1. "You can give them the chance to be a philanthropist on your dime," Theodore Washington says.

Donors can steer an entire donation to a project, or they can set aside a portion for DonorsChoose to cover its costs. Projects are posted online for up to five months. If a project doesn't get the needed funds, donors can redirect their donations to another project.

Since Maryland started participating three years ago, donors have contributed $972,509 to help 73,226 students.

DonorsChoose has some high-profile supporters. Comedy Central's Stephen Colbert sits on the board, and last week Oprah Winfrey named the nonprofit as one of her favorite things.

Charity begins around the world GlobalGiving offers gift cards that allow recipients to make donations of $10 or more to about 1,200 projects worldwide, including 250 in the United States.

The range of projects is broad, ranging from animal rescue and human rights to disaster recovery and sports programs for educating children. One project uses soccer as a way to reach Kenyan youths with information about HIV/AIDS.

All projects are run by nonprofits, which are vetted by GlobalGiving, says Andrew Baldes, a marketing and communications associate at the organization. Eighty-five percent of donations go toward the project, with the rest supporting GlobalGiving and its training of nonprofits, Baldes says.

GlobalGiving donors have given $33 million since the group was founded in 2002, and nearly half of that has poured in over the past few years, Baldes says. He credits a growing awareness among individuals that $10 — an amount they might spend on parking — can make a tangible difference to someone else in the world.

Give a moo Through Heifer International, you can give the gift of a goat, sheep or other livestock to families in the United States and other countries. The animals provide sustenance, and what's not eaten can be turned into income by selling excess milk and eggs or wool from sheep.

You also can donate to a project, such as livestock development in Sierra Leone, beekeeping in Kosovo or diversified farming in Arkansas.

Heifer's gift catalog lists your choices: $20 for a flock of chicks, $30 for honeybees, $150 for a llama or $5,000 for an "ark" made up of pairs of cows, sheep, oxen, water buffalo, llamas and much more. If you can't afford an entire animal, you can buy a share. A water buffalo, for example, costs $250, but you and nine others can each buy a share for $25.

The family receiving the livestock is required to pass on one of the animal's offspring to another family in need in the community, Heifer spokesman Joedy Isert says.

When you buy an animal on behalf of someone else through Heifer, you select the animal or project.

If you buy a specific animal, the entire donation goes to that purchase. Donate to a project and 76 percent of the money goes to the program while the rest supports the nonprofit. The 66-year-old organization raised $100 million for 1.6 million families for the year ended June 30.

Isert says many donors return year after year. "Giving the goat, honeybees and the animals is special to them. They see it as an investment," he says.

Lend a hand Kiva is a nonprofit that allows you to become a microlender to entrepreneurs around the world. The group works with about 50 microfinance institutions.

The loans carry interest rates that range from about 10 percent to as much as 35 percent, depending on the country, says spokeswoman Colleen Smith. The interest finances the labor-intensive work done by the microfinance institutions, whose employees often travel to remote areas to reach entrepreneurs, she says.

A Kiva gift card allows recipients to choose the entrepreneur they want to fund. The minimum loan is $25. Once you make a loan, you're on the hook if the entrepreneur defaults. But Smith says nearly 99 percent of loans are repaid.

Lenders get their money back as the entrepreneur repays the loans. The lenders can then cash out or use the money to make other loans, Smith says, adding that most choose to make new loans.

The five-year-old Kiva has facilitated about $174 million in loans, most of which went to women. Kiva also recently launched a pilot program to provide student loans in Bolivia, Lebanon and Paraguay.

Winfrey also recently named Kiva as a favorite on her television show. When that happened, Kiva got around 1,200 new users — "and that's significantly higher than our average day," Smith says.

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