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You’ve probably received an “alternative gift catalog” this season, perhaps several. Alternative gifts are targeted at those who are having trouble finding that perfect gift for their father (who has everything) or sister (who likes nothing). Alternative gift programs allow givers to buy a cow, a water pump, seeds, or any other useful item for a poor person, which will be given in the name of a loved-one. The recipient gets something they need, the giver solves an intractable holiday giving problem and the loved-one is spared the need to smile nicely at another matching cashmere glove-hat set she didn’t want.

Yet alternative gifts came in for a significant amount of criticism last year primarily because people are becoming more aware that the items in an alternative gift catalog are not literal. When a giver buys a cow from Oxfam it does not necessarily mean that a poor person will receive a cow. To use the language of Oxfam’s disclaimer, the items in the gift catalog are “symbolic.“ A giver might buy a cow, yet a poor person might receive training in cheese-making, or free veterinary care and education for the livestock they already have, or they might get a brood of chickens if poultry is more appropriate to their region. The giver choses the gift, but the organization can use its discretion in how the gift is spent. Giving aid organizations discretion is not necessarily a bad thing as Tim explains in his column. But there is a valid question in all of this: how “symbolic” are the items really?

Devin Hermanson, director of gift catalogs at World Vision, says, “If you buy a goat, a portion of that money will be spent on something similar in the category.“ Thus animal purchases go to animal related programs, cisterns or filtration packets go to sanitation initiatives, etc. “If we say we’re going to donate an animal and it ends up in a water project, that’s just too far afield.“ Heifer International allows even more leeway with alternative gift donations. “Gifts made through this catalog represent a gift to the entire mission,“ their representative wrote via email. “We use your gifts where they can do the most good by pooling them with the gifts of others to help transform entire communities.“

The prices of various livestock gifts shed some light. The price of a cow from either the World Vision or Heifer International catalogs is $500; but an Oxfam cow costs only $75. According to market reports by Professor Brian Gould from the Department of Agricultural and Applied Economics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, the average wholesale price for a Holstein calf in the United States during 2007 ranged from between $450 and $700; milk cow prices per head in the first part of the year ranged from $1660 and $1950—a wide range indeed, and in any event far from $75. In short, a cow might be a calf, but is certainly not a full-grown, milk-producing heifer.
All this simply confirms what thinking donors already know: alternative gifts are marketing tools primarily, and effective ones at that. They help humanitarian organizations take advantage of the season in a way that decreases cannibalization of other donations (World Vision’s Hermanson said an internal study indicated that more than 25 percent of alternative gift givers think of such gifts separately from their charity budget) while maintaining their discretion in how the gift is spent. It is important, however, not to be glib about the push-back these programs have been receiving. Although it makes logical sense that beneficiaries know better than donors what they need, donors still feel disillusioned and manipulated if they find that the heifer they thought they bought was not a heifer at all.

How to avoid this conflict? Nonprofits are doing a better job of getting that “symbolic” language front and center rather than hiding it in the small print. And donors would do well to adjust their expectations—and, perhaps, their giving patterns. The end-of-year rush is analogous to disaster-related giving in that it attaches a gift artificially to an event, when in reality the need is there all the time. If you like an organization and what they do, give to them—you don’t need to wait for a cow sale.

Editor’s Note: This article originally appeared in December 2007. We’re republishing it for it’s relevance to year end gift-giving.

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