Christmas camels

Philanthropic gifting – presents that do good for those less fortunate, whether across the planet or down the road – is on the rise. Emma Jacobs reports.

November 18 2010
Emma Jacobs

Imagine a Christmas present list something like this. Husband: a swathe of lush, tropical rainforest in Ecuador, home to the spectacled bear and jaguar; mother-in-law: a fully stocked library, complete with librarian, in an Indian village; best friend: sponsorship of a brand-new work to be performed by London’s Royal Ballet. Fantastical? Actually, entirely possible.

The past few years have seen a rise in ethical charity gifts through organisations such as the Good Gifts Catalogue, Heifer International and Oxfam, as cows, goats, medical supplies and trees capture the imagination of the gift-buying public. The appeal is obvious. Giving a pair of camels will spark more of a discussion over the Christmas dinner than a pair of earrings. And a charitable gift gives the recipient lasting pleasure, knowing that somewhere in the world, something constructive is being done in their name.

There are prices to suit all pockets: £5 will buy 50 bowls of rice for 50 hungry children in Africa; £1,250 buys a library in an Indian village or in an African informal settlement, fully stocked with furniture and books, and pays a librarian’s salary for two years. A further £125 will expand the library and £45 will buy a newspaper subscription for a year. For £5,000, Rainforest Concern can acquire 1,000 acres of endangered rainforest in your loved one’s name and protect it from mining and palm-oil plantations.

If you’re in the UK and want to support a cause closer to home, why not preserve the British greenbelt? For £2,500 you can protect half an acre of land outside Newcastle from urban creep by placing it in charity ownership. That’s about £25 per 12sq m – cheaper than carpet. Or give an inner-city family a much-needed holiday at the British seaside, from £25 a day per person, or £700 a week for two adults and two children. For many children, it may be the first time they have ever seen the sea. (All the above can be bought through Good Gifts.)

Normally these gifts are accompanied by a card or certificate and a warm feeling; occasionally, recipients also receive a report from the new library, or a newly erected football factory will send footballs. In some cases, people can go and visit the village libraries built in their names. Dame Hilary Blume, director of Good Gifts, says: “We can arrange contacts, though we don’t encourage it as they are often in very remote areas.”

Dame Hilary also cautions against feeling too involved in your gift: “Once you’ve given the gift, it’s out of your hands. It’s up to the end-recipient whether, for example, the goat gets eaten or herded.” Generally, though, she says, the goat will be kept for breeding, and its manure used to fertilise the fields or burned for heating.

It’s important to look at the reputation of the charity you’re buying through and not to be too literal about the gift. Some charities may decide to buy alternative livestock if they think there are too many of the type you have chosen being bought. Through Heifer International, as well as buying individual livestock, for $5,000 you can buy an Ark of animals. This will provide 15 pairs of animals – so two cows could bring milk and income to a Russian village, two oxen pull ploughs and carts in Uganda, two camels help families in Tanzania earn income by transporting agricultural and industrial materials. Each family who receives livestock will pass on one or more of the animals’ offspring to other families who are in need, thereby creating, it is hoped, sustainable communities. Alternatively, for $1,000 you could buy a Milk Menagerie, which provides four milk-producing animals – a quality-breed heifer, two goats and a water buffalo.

If you do want to spend hundreds or even thousands on a charity gift, don’t dismiss the smaller items. As Dame Hilary points out, “You don’t have to buy a big gift; you can buy multiples of the smaller gifts. Ten pounds will vaccinate a child but the need is infinite, so why not buy several vaccinations?” Other smaller gifts can be sought through, for example, the US organisation Alternative Gifts. There you could buy your own grandmother a Hugging Granny. This project funds volunteer “grannies” in China whose primary job is to hug and hold needy orphans, play with them, and make them feel very special. For $8, you get one week of Hugging Granny time; $32 buys Hugging Granny services for one month. Or how about donating a backpack filled with basic medical supplies to a North Korean doctor for $126?

While most charities will not take kindly to a big cash donor telling them how to run their programmes, many are amenable to ideas. Dame Hilary says that she is happy to be approached with a request for a personalised gift. “People come to us with ideas for targeted giving. One woman wanted to buy a village library in Sri Lanka in memory of her mother who had taught there. So we sought out some contacts in Sri Lanka.” She has even bought bulls (used in insemination programmes in Africa) and named them after the gift recipient.

Cultural institutions may also have sponsorship programmes they are willing to adapt for gifts. London’s Royal Opera House, for example, is looking to form a small syndicate of ballet-lovers to support its first new full-length commission since 1995. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, choreographed by Christopher Wheeldon, will be performed in February and March next year. Individuals can support a role, such as the Duchess, Cheshire Cat or the March Hare, for between £5,000 and £15,000. In return, depending on the level of support, the donor can become more involved in the production – for example, attending studio rehearsals and a gala dinner after the opening night.

You could make a major contribution to a friend’s favourite charity. If the charity is having a capital campaign, the donor may request that a room, or a scholarship, is named after a loved one. This permanently (and publicly) associates the recipient with a charity that’s personally meaningful to him or her.

Alternatively, you could leave the decision of where the money goes to the recipient. For example, buying a Good Card from the US organisation Network for Good allows the donor to buy a given amount of credit for the recipient to spend on their favourite causes.

Then there are schemes. Oxfam’s Projects Direct scheme gives wealthy gift-buyers the chance to change lives by directly funding a community project somewhere in the world. Aimed at those looking to spend £10,000 or more, buyers can choose from a range of projects, from working to end violence against women in India or improving the lives of people in Kenya’s urban slums to funding education for orphans and vulnerable children in Zambia. The money they give goes directly to the project, helping to fund every element – from equipment and training to staffing and transport – and the buyer will get reports detailing how money is being spent. This Christmas, buyers can choose from projects in countries including India, Kenya, Zambia, Mali, Thailand, Tanzania, South Africa, Bangladesh, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Vietnam, Gaza, Zimbabwe, Bolivia, Liberia, Niger, Sudan and Yemen.

The Big Give is another initiative aimed at people who want to spend a considerable amount. Donors who stump up at least £100,000 can choose a charitable project that interests them, and the company uses this as a catalyst to inspire thousands more to donate to that fund. Then there is Kiva, which provides gift certificates up to $10,000 – it is a microfinancing project, providing the poor with finance to start their own entrepreneurial activities.

For those who think their loved one might want to become more involved in a charity, there are a few ideas on offer. Addidi, the women-focused wealth management service, suggests a gift of membership to its Make a Difference Investment Club for £5,000. Members become part of a circle that will fund philanthropic projects and/or invest in social enterprises. Or you could buy membership of the Funding Network (£85 for individuals, £120 for families and couples). This organises events where, over refreshments, various charities present their objectives and members pledge donations in an informal bidding session – it’s interesting, great fun and you become part of a community of charitable givers.

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