Holiday Gifts That Give Back

Toy and coat drives are great, but these six groups offer other charitable options.

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(The Root) -- The holiday season is in full effect. Yuletide cheer in the form of cards and decorations began appearing in stores in October, as if Americans needed reminders that Christmas was nearly two months away.

For some, the meaning of Christmas has gotten lost in the heavy focus on the gift giving and the perceived lack of focus on celebrating the birth of Christ. " 'Tis the season to be jolly" has been replaced with " 'Tis the season to make money," with the buzz of commercialism ringing so loudly that it often drowns out the classic holiday songs piped through the stores, music that many remember as the soundtrack to wonderful holiday gatherings, yet stokes the desire to buy more and more. Signs of recessions fade to the back as folks literally step over one another in a race to get that mass-produced or one-of-a-kind item that will put a smile on the face of someone special -- even if you will frown when your credit card bill arrives next month.

If I seem slightly "Grinchy," I am. Although I love the holiday season, I struggle with the commercialism that is aimed squarely at helping to stimulate the economy while decreasing our bank accounts and increasing credit card debt exponentially. So I decided that instead of being a Scrooge, I would find stores that actually give back to the communities that create their wares.

With help from a group of students from Goucher's Peace Studies Program, I came up with a list of businesses that have the goal of giving back. If you notice that obvious choices like Toms, Bobs by Skechers and Product Red are missing from the list, it is because, through research, we have found that sometimes good intentions go awry.

While Toms and Bobs intend to help provide shoes for folks who don't have them with their initiative to "buy-a-pair, give-a-pair" to someone in need, they often hurt local economies by taking away business from producers of shoes who actually live in the community, increasing the cycle of poverty. Product Red doesn't have that problem but suffers from what the Economist refers to as the "ineluctable middleman," in which the amount of money raised by the initiative, although in the millions, is a fraction of what is spent on the marketing, production and distribution.

For example, in 2007 an estimated $100 million was spent in advertising and marketing for Product Red, but it raised only $18 million for the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria. I'm not saying not to buy a Product Red Gap T-shirt, especially if you're already shopping there, but know that proceeds from your purchase may not make it to the Global Fund.

If it really is the thought that counts, here are some businesses you might think about patronizing during this holiday season. If these businesses don't interest you, then think about spending money with small businesses and entrepreneurs in your community. Seasons greetings!

Heifer International

Heifer International's mission is major: to help end hunger and poverty throughout the world while caring for the Earth. Founded 67 years ago, Heifer initially started out donating cows to help provide real milk instead of powdered milk to impoverished communities. Today Heifer helps families empower themselves by improving their nutrition and generating income in sustainable ways. Heifer donates livestock and training to people living in poverty.

In exchange for the help, families agree to give one of the animal's offspring to another family in need and to provide the necessary training for that family. They refer to the practice as "Passing on the Gift," which helps to create a network of hope and peace. Check out the catalog and see how you can give a gift that keeps on giving.

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