THOUGH I COULD NEVER repay the Maasai who taught me their songs, the Boreh Boys who brought me a new year’s lobster, or the 20-year-old Israeli soldier who showed me the graveyard where his friends were buried, I am compelled to give something back to the communities I visit, especially those in developing countries.
It never feels right to go home to my comparatively charmed life and drop what could feed a far-away friend’s family for a month on a kitschy holiday gift for Great Aunt Rita. This year I found a few ways to double my holiday spirit with give-back gifts that provide that fuzzy feeling and pass it along, allowing Great Aunt Rita to give back too.
These are loans, not donations, which means they’ll be paid back (or forward, in the case of Heifer International) in time, but are an essential starting point for impoverished but driven communities.
Fund Some College for Christmas – Seattle-based startup Vittana doesn’t give a man a fish, they teach him to fish, or more accurately, they offer student loans to select scholars in countries that don’t have a student loan program. It’s not a handout – it’s an education.
Got a picky college student on your list? For as little as $25 you can get them a Vittana gift certificate. Let them choose and help fund a student they identify with in another country, while giving them a little perspective on the value of their education.
Buy a Heifer for Hanukkah – One of the most well-known microfinance organizations, Heifer International, offers consumers a chance to give a flock of ducks ($20), a milking goat ($120), a heifer ($500), bees ($30), or even tree seedlings ($60) to a developing community in the name of someone you love. With an option in every price range, Heifer International allows the giver and receiver to read about and envision exactly what impact their gift will have on a community. A flock of chickens to provide 200 eggs a year to a hungry child? Sounds a little better than that deluxe can-opener you got for grandma last year.
Give a Little Kiva for Kwanzaa – Kiva is a Swahili word meaning “agreement” or “unity.” Kiva is a direct-lender site where anyone can spend as little as $25 to help fund a loan to someone running a business in a developing country. Even better, Kiva offers gift certificates so that your loved one can go online and choose whose dreams they want to come true this year. Now that’s holiday spirit.
Perhaps there are people on your list that just won’t get excited without a gift to show off? Or maybe you, like me, are kicking yourself for not buying more of those beautiful tribal necklaces (that suddenly came into style last month) when you had the chance? Through sites like Ten Thousand Villages, Be Sweet Products, and Global Girlfriend, you can buy crafts made by women around the world at fair-trade prices, allowing them to make a real living while preserving the crafts of their heritage.
Whatever you’re looking for – jewelry, décor, clothing, or kitchenware – it will make a bigger impact if you bought it from a community you’re connected to than if you got it at Ross.
Kids really need holiday gifts they can put their hands on, but that doesn’t mean you can’t give back when shopping for them. The enormously popular One Laptop Per Child has created laptops geared specifically for children in developing countries. With long battery lives and a special screen that can be read in direct sunlight for students that go to school outdoors, the laptops make a great gift for any child, and for a limited time each year you can buy one for a child in your life and donate one to a student in a developing country.
On a smaller scale, Unicef Canada offers Gifts of Play in the form of storybooks, art supplies, and soccer balls. Donate one of these gifts to Unicef and buy a matching one for a child in your family, then watch their world-view grow a little as they imagine another, less fortunate child somewhere in the world playing with the same gift as them.