Last summer, I attended the wedding of an older couple I didn’t know well. With no registry to guide me, I gave them the only gift I knew would be appropriate regardless of political inclination or personal interest: I donated one-10th of a camel in their name.
I bought the share of the creature through Heifer International, a charitable organization that invites first-worlders to help families in developing countries by giving the gift of cows, goats, or yes, camels (the beasts "not only provide transportation," but also "produce milk that families can drink or sell"). I know about Heifer because, over the past several holiday seasons, my friends and I have received enough livestock donations to staff a small petting zoo.
Charitable organizations have long labored to reframe charitable giving as an adequate replacement for more consumerist stocking stuffers come Christmas. But Heifer International has dominated the holiday charitable giving arena by smartly packaging livestock for the poor as a present for the well-off, too. In 2008, the organization brought in nearly $140 million in contributions.
Heifer's success relies on its ability to mimic the traditional holiday experience: Charitable giving with the gloss of consumerism. Browsing through Heifer’s gift catalog, which features prominently on the organization's website and in mailboxes across the country, feels like shopping. Gift givers are invited to assess cutesy portraits of potential presents: A flock of chicks ($20), trio of rabbits ($60), a water buffalo ($150), or a camel ($850, or $85 for a share). The tangibility of the gift is key to Heifer's appeal—it’s more fun to imagine a struggling family enjoying your buffalo than it is an administrative assistant enjoying your generous donation of printer paper.
Beneath the packaging, though, Heifer's charitable business model is more abstract. “Gifts made through this catalog represent a gift to the entire mission,” the fine print reads. “To help the most number of families move toward self-reliance, Heifer does not use its limited resources to track gift animals from donation to distribution.” In other words, a water buffalo is not always a water buffalo. “The community expresses which gifts will be most useful," says Heifer communications specialist Kelly MacNeil. Heifer won’t tell them, “You guys are getting 20 heads of cattle whether you need them or not."
So when you purchase a collection of baby chicks, you may actually be funding necessary support systems instead—"seeds, or some reforestation in the area, or keeping Heifer management going,” says MacNeil. Donations are also used to help families raise and maintain the animals, then pass along their offspring to other families in need. The money also helps fund the free “honor cards” the organization pairs with donations—images of handsome sheep and cheery holiday messages perfect for slipping under the tree. (Gift givers can cut out the artifice by electing to simply give the money to where it's most needed).
But Heifer's catalog of furry friends functions in another way—as holidays bring together family and friends from all political persuasions, Heifer represents a relatively inoffensive choice. Donations to reproductive rights organizations, environmental nonprofits, or explicitly religious groups (Heifer was started by a missionary and works closely with communities of faith, but offers a largely secular service) can be tricky. But though some commentators disagree on Heifer's approach, few could argue with the idea of giving someone a cow. So the organization’s terminology dances smarty between political ideologies: Heifer offers a “hand-up,” not a “hand-out”; it “empowers” families toward “self-reliance.” And it’s cute enough to be relatable for kids—one parent of a GOOD staffer told me that the organization's services appeal to her because they "recall the nativity"—but scrubbed of the politically-charged activism of the animal rights movement.
And yet, the gift seems personalized—you were thoughtful enough to decide that grandma might prefer a buffalo over a camel, even if she's really just getting seeds.