Faith in Generosity


The first piece of holiday-shopping junk mail I got this year also happens to be The Most Important Gift Catalog in the World. I know this, because it says so, right there on the cover, above a head shot of a sheep. The Most Important Gift Catalog in the World—that’s really what it’s called—comes from the nonprofit Heifer International, and I immediately tore into the little 5-by-7-inch volume to learn what makes it so important.

The product inside, as the cover model and name suggest, is livestock. Heifer International offers the chance to give a farm animal to a starving family somewhere in the world and forego the wine aerators and magnetic poetry kits that people typically get suckered into buying this time of year. The way it works is, you buy an animal, let’s say a sheep (which costs $120); the organization sends it to someone such as Yurii Boichuck of Ukraine, the kid pictured cuddling a lamb on Page 6 of the catalog; and someone on your gift list— say your mom—receives a card in the mail explaining, in so many words, that you used the money you would normally spend on her to help Yurii and his family instead.

The teach-a-man-to-fish approach is enticing. “By selling the wool from their livestock,” the catalog reads, “many Heifer families can earn enough money to not only pay for food, school and doctor visits, but also to reinvest in their farms.” The organization stresses self-reliance, which it says it promotes through programs such as on-site education and by requiring animal recipients to pay their gifts forward—sharing eggs with neighbors, for instance.

As I stare at a photo of a beaming child cradling two chickens on Page 10, I think about my little urban flock, how much I enjoy holding my own Rhode Island Red, how happy my co-workers are when I share fresh eggs with them. I’ve half-decided to buy a $20 flock of chickens on behalf of every person on my Christmas list when I have another, less charitable thought about this Danilo Ramos Jr., the kid pictured with the chickens: How do I know that he will, as I have, learn to differentiate molting from a possible mite infestation when his pets start dropping feathers; that he will care enough to administer antibiotics when the flock undergoes its first, inevitable bout of pox; or that he has enough time and money to make sure they have warm bedding for the winter? Heck, how do I know the Ramos family didn’t just eat the birds the second the photographer was out of sight?

I resolve to subject Heifer International to my crack investigative-reporter skills before committing to any purchase. Why should I give my hard-earned money to an outfit that might not make the same good use of it as I would?

But when I sit down to my computer the following morning and start Googling nonprofit auditors, I’m struck by my own cold-heartedness. I realize I’m acting like that guy—the one who says he doesn’t give money to charity because it all just goes to administrative costs, rather than the people in need.

After a couple of hours researching the issue, I discover that the Better Business Bureau and two big nonprofit watchdog groups published a letter earlier this year to definitively address the so-called “overhead myth.” Backed up by considerable research, they argue that administrative costs as a percentage of donations are not an accurate measure of a nonprofit’s effectiveness.

One way to look at it is to consider the alternative. Sometimes, non-governmental organizations spend less than they should, or want to, on the needy because gaps in the local government or infrastructure preclude them from doing more. Analysts believe this may have been the case in Haiti, following the 2010 earthquake, where less than half of Red Cross donations appear to have been spent on medical care, food and water, and other victim assistance. But ask yourself: Would the disaster relief effort in the Philippines be better if the Red Cross stayed away?

Of course, nonprofits should be held accountable for their actions and spending—and they are—just as for-profit companies should be. I once spent half an hour reading up on the Humane Society of the United States’ involvement with Michael Vick, the NFL quarterback convicted of dog-fighting crimes, before deciding whether to give the group money. I should spend at least that amount of time looking into the companies that will benefit from the funds in my retirement account, right?

Now that I think of it, wouldn’t it be great if we held all our transactions to the same standard as we hold our philanthropy? Next time you’re ordering a meal, ask your waiter if he’s being paid a living wage; if not, walk out. When you’re depositing money in your bank account, inquire about the corporation’s social mission. Heading to Victoria’s Secret for Mrs. Santa? Before you pay, get an update on the company’s spotty child-labor record. You don’t want your paycheck funding sweatshops in Asia, do you?

Heifer International, it turns out, receives two out of four stars on so-so marks for financial management, but extra credit for being transparent. That makes it a safe investment in my book. Unlike purveyors of most purchases, from chewing gum to automobiles, those trafficking in goods from The Most Important Gift Catalog in the World have nothing to hide. I can always call them and ask if they know how the chickens I buy are doing, see if my future Danilos need any tips. That openness is a gift in itself, a commodity almost as rare as unconditional generosity.

Looking for creative ways to give this season? Click here for ideas.

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