'Tis the reason: This holiday season, give a gift that could change a life

Gift catalogs from World Vision and Mercy Corps

The traveler on your list may be off to South America or Asia next year, but you won’t have to leave your desk to find a practical gift that will be appreciated, not just for what it is, but from where it came and the goodwill it will spread.

"Tis the reason to put your holiday shopping dollars to work supporting local businesses, charitable organizations and online retailers with a global mission. Six ideas: 

Buy a donkey and support a family 

Two national organizations active in world relief, MercyCorps and World Vision,  have come out with holiday "gift'' catalogs filled with coupons with donation amounts that will help families in third-world countries buy a goat ($75), set up a tea stall ($25) or purchase a bicycle ($50). Portland, Oregon-based MercyCorps offers the chance go to online, choose a gift geared towards children, farming, emergencies, women, jobs or animals, select a person to honor and a customized card that explains the donation made in the recipient's name. The gifts are somewhat symbolic in that donations are combined with other funds raised and used as most needed, but a good idea, especially for younger people, who will be better able to relate to where the money goes.

World Vision's catalog works much the same way. A $25 donation, for instance, buys two chickens and "umpteen eggs.'' Sixteen dollars will buy two soccer balls. Children living without electricity will be able to study with a solar lantern ($20) that delivers four hours of light a day.

Finance a loan

Buy a $25 gift card from Kiva.org, and let the traveler on your list find and follow the progress of an entrepreneur in a Third World country.

Since it's founding in 2005, the San Francisco nonprofit has worked with 286 microlending field partners in 83 countries to funnel small loans to budding small businessmen and women who use the money to buy a bicycle, a cow or cooking pots, sometimes all that’s needed to earn enough to support a family. You pick the country and the person you want to support, and Kiva supplies updates on their progress.

Since making my first loans to Roma (Gypsy) entrepreneurs in Sliven, Bulgaria a few years ago, I've recycled an initial $108 "investment" (lenders are repaid but collect no interest) into $900 worth of loans to 36 individuals and groups in 11 countries. My portfolio includes loans to a dressmaker in Tajikistan, a education provider in Palestine, a group of Cambodian women who make and sell desserts and a tea seller in South Sudan. Their pictures appear on my corner of Kiva’s website along with notes such as “Success! The loan was 100 percent repaid.” A Kiva gift card makes an especially good gift for children interested in learning more about people in other parts of the world, as well as a little about how  business works.

Go fair-trade shopping

Shop for art and handicrafts online or at stores that support fair wages and decent working conditions in developing countries.

One of the best is Ten Thousand Villages, a national chain run by volunteers from the Mennonite Church. A nationwide chain of 390 retail stores plus online sales help artisans in 38 countries find a market for handcrafted products. The company encourages partners to use environmentally friendly processes, sustainable natural resources and recycled materials.

Browsing in-person or online is like traveling around the world in one afternoon. From Bangladesh are baskets made from date palms ($14) and cinnamon bark boxes ($12) that help support Vietnamese women and children from neglected families. The website includes videos showing how many of the products are made. Buy online and print out a story card to enclose with your gift. 

Give chocolate for a cause

Do you love giving chocolate as a holiday gift? Generate food bank donations with #chocolategives, a November-December promotion for purchases made online at seattlechocolates.com.

The Seattle company, with stores in New York, Boston and throughout the West Coast, is donating 10 cents (the equivalent cost of one serving of food) to a local food bank for every item you purchase online. Donations will be made through a network of local food banks including the Food Bank for New York City, Greater Boston Food Bank, SF-Marin Food Bank and Seattle's Northwest Harvest. 

You actually don't even have to buy anything to participate.  Seattle Chocolates says it will donate 10 cents for every social media mention of #chocolategives during the same period. Don't underestimate the power of a small donation. For example, Seattle's Northwest Harvest is able to provide a nutritious meal to a family of three for $67 cents and Food Bank for New York City can provide five meals to new Yorkers in need for $1.00. 

Donate in a traveler’s name

Passports with a Purpose, a fundraiser started in 2008 by four Seattle-based travel bloggers, will hit the road on December 1 when blogger posts go live, with the goal of helping families in Honduras grow their own food in a way that protects the ecosystems they live in and prevent tropical deforestation.

Last year the group raised $84,000 to create two schools in Mali and fund two adult literacy programs.This year, the group is partnering with Sustainable Harvest International which says it can help a family for five years with each $5,000 raised.Those who donate are eligible for prizes, from travel gear to vacation packages, supplied by the bloggers and sponsoring travel companies. Every $10 buys a chance to win something.

Promote responsible travel 

Give a gift subscription to a publication that promotes world understanding through responsible travel. I like Afar Magazine for its emphasis on the cultural aspects of foreign travel. Another favorite is International Travel News, a non-nonsense publication printed on black-and-white newsprint filled with trip reports and advice from real travelers.

Happy holidays!

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