— Few people put mosquito tents, cans of worms and three-toed sloths on their holiday wish lists.
But now more than ever, large not-for-profit organizations like the United Nations Children’s Fund, OxFam America and the World Wildlife Fund “sell” items like these in holiday gift catalogs.
Why? Because gift catalogs work, according to Stacy Palmer, editor of the Chronicle of Philanthropy, a Washington-based newspaper that covers the nonprofit sector. Every year, the number of non-profits using gift catalogs grows, she noted.
“Charities that offer the catalogs are tapping into issues of great concern to Americans — the environment, global aid — so both donors and recipients can feel they are making a difference,” Palmer said. She added that for consumers, the catalogs “offer a festive, creative, convenient and affordable way of making a charitable donation and giving a present rather than just slipping a check in an envelope or going to the mall.”
World Vision International, for example, raised $12 million from its holiday gift catalog last year — a 20 percent increase from the year before. For sale in the Christian humanitarian aid group’s catalog this year: A “brood of chickens” for families in Africa and Asia for $125, or school uniforms and books for $75 to help children in Africa and Asia.
The aim of these sorts of gifts is to give shoppers the opportunity to give charitable donations in honor of a friend or loved one instead of just another scarf or sweater.
But while it’s a gift idea that appeals to some consumers it can be puzzling to others because in some cases the money spent goes to a general fund rather than to pay for each individual item “purchased.”
For instance, people may “buy” a can of worms for $18 from OxFam America, the nonprofit dedicated to fighting hunger. The purchase will help impoverished farmers, OxFam America says, but the nonprofit doesn’t actually buy a can of worms for those farmers. Instead, the money it receives for the worms goes toward its more general agricultural programs.
The United Nations Children’s Fund, or Unicef, is one of the few charities that actually orders and ships items paid for by customers rather than designating items in the catalogs as “symbolic gifts” that benefit a general program.
The charity’s “Inspired Gifts Catalog” lets people buy lifesaving items for children in developing countries, such as mosquito nets for $15, wool blankets for $73 and a school-in-a-box kit for $173, which includes cubes for counting, exercise books, pencils, erasers and pairs of scissors.
Heifer International, which attempts to lift people out of poverty through livestock and agricultural training, raised at least $20 million via its catalog last year. An estimated 2 million people give Heifer International donations as gifts each year, said Ray White, a company spokesman.
Mailed to millions of people, the catalog “sells” $120 sheep as the perfect gift for an aunt who “taught you to knit,” or a goat that costs $120 as the perfect gift for a nephew that loves “The Billy Goats Gruff.”
“People are realizing that chasing after the prettiest sweater is not cutting it — they are searching for something deeper and more meaningful,” said Robin McGonigle, interim president of Alternative Gifts, a Wichita, Kan., nonprofit that sells such “symbolic” gifts in a catalog to raise money for 35 different charities worldwide.
Indeed, 78 percent of U.S. adults said they wished the holidays were less materialistic, according to a survey of 568 people commissioned by The Center for a New American Dream, a Tacoma Park, Md., nonprofit that aims to reduce commercialism in America.
Still, U.S. consumers plan to spend an average of $816.69 on holiday-related shopping this year, up 3.7 percent from last year, according to research from the National Retail Federation.
Although some people would rather receive “stuff” for the holidays, Laurie Dusenberry, 37, of Eagle, Colo., said when she receives a donation as a gift it is a breath of fresh air during the excess of the holidays. “I think it’s totally good,” she said. “I mean, do we really need more stuff?”
Pamela Lennox of New York's Long Island, makes it an annual tradition to give extended family members and friends cards that indicate she bought livestock in their name for Heifer International. At first, people were taken aback by the donations in lieu of gifts, but over the years they’ve come to appreciate them, she said.
“A lot of the people to whom I give these gifts don’t need more stuff,” said Lennox, who is 60. She said the gifts produce less waste and allow her to spend more time with friends and family and less time running from store to store and to the post office. “I do things that are a more meaningful way to celebrate Christmas,” she said.
More charities hope to appeal to people like Lennox.
Last month, OxFam America introduced its “OxFam Unwrapped” online catalog that looks much like a traditional e-commerce Web site with “merchandise” categorized by price, by hobby (the can of worms for the gardener in your life) and by gift ideas (a $50 crocodile, the money for which goes to help raise the reptiles in areas where populations are depleted.)
Last year, the World Wildlife Fund launched a holiday catalog that lets people “adopt” an animal (such as a zebra, or a three-toed sloth for between $25 and $100). People who buy such gifts receive a photo of their animal and an adoption certificate.
Last month, the charity also came out with a new “Extraordinary Gift Catalog” modeled after the over-the-top gifts in the annual Neiman Marcus Christmas catalog.
While Neiman’s catalog sells outrageous gifts like a $1.4 million personal submarines and $1 million 305-carat diamond necklaces, the World Wildlife Fund lets people spend $500,000 to help save the 600,000-square-mile Bikin River basin in Mongolia, which is threatened by dams, pollution and trade in endangered wildlife.
People who want more traditional gifts (but ones that benefit charity) can also shop at a number of other online nonprofit stores, including these: