Jim Eckhardt says there was a time he'd fill his holiday shopping cart with toys for his six grandchildren. But seven years ago, he had an epiphany: The kids had too much stuff.
"You look at all the things we throw away and that money could be put to better use," Eckhardt says.
After checking out alternatives, Eckhardt settled on the idea of farm animals. He decided he'd give one animal on behalf of each grandchild through the organization Heifer International.
Lydia Lapporte, of Lafayette, Calif., was about 7 when she received a goat from her grandfather. At the time, she didn't really understand who it was for. But then her mother, Juleen Lapporte, explained that the gift was a contribution given in her name. She was never going to see this animal.
Heifer said it would give the goat to a poor family in Vietnam or Africa. The family could drink the goat's milk, breed the animal and eventually perhaps sell goat meat.
"It was going to help people earn money for food, for bare essentials of life," Lapporte says.
The idea that someone's life could be changed by a gift of a few goats or chicks is not new. But there are now more groups that arrange such gifts than ever. Organizations like Kiva, Give Well and Charity Navigator help connect givers with giving opportunities. Fonkoze and BRAC work on the ground and also help givers directly support the people they're working with.
Heifer has been around since the 1940s. It has about $100 million in annual revenues and 400,000 donors. In a nutshell, it uses the "teach a man to fish" model through giving.
Economic development experts say these programs can't reverse poverty all on their own.
"What you're trying to do is establish a base from which individuals who are really poor generate a source of income for many years to come," says Dean Karlan, a professor of economics at Yale University who studies solutions to poverty and was a founder of Innovations for Poverty Action. He says groups such as Heifer are popular with donors because people love the idea of connecting one family with an animal.
"It's very concrete and small enough that we can give it and it makes us feel good," Karlan says.
The part that's more complicated for donors to understand is that on its own, the gift of one goat or pig is not a magic bullet, Karlan says. It takes a lot more to lift someone out of poverty and keep them there. It's a complicated process.
"It's easy to make things sound good," he says, "and there are lots of things that work. But it's not always the things that sound best."
Karlan has never evaluated Heifer. But in studying similar programs, he has found that what works best is what he calls the "big push." You give the recipients livestock, but you also train them to care for the animals, set up savings accounts, get their children in school, even give them short-term food assistance so they don't end up eating the one goat they've been given.
Susan Davis, president and CEO of BRAC-USA, says charity giving is a little gimmicky, but it's also a great way to raise people's awareness and makes them feel as if they're part of the solution. "In the end we're not going to solve big problems until we proliferate the number of change-makers," she says.
And for many donors, the gift of a goat or a chicken is just the beginning of that.
In 2009, Lydia and her mother traveled to Vietnam on a Heifer International study tour to meet families that are recipients of Heifer gifts. Now 14, Lydia has helped raised about $20,000 for Heifer from her family and friends.
"When you think about the big picture, we should be the happiest people, because we're the most fortunate," she says.
She says learning about poverty has taught her that receiving doesn't make her nearly as happy as giving.
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This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.
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Some people are rethinking the tradition of gift giving. For example, the website WhatIDidntBuy.org. It gives family and friends the option to donate to a charity based on the dollar value of the tie or earrings they chose not to buy you. The idea is to make charitable gift giving a little less abstract.
Well, NPR's Allison Aubrey reports on another organization that's doing just that with animals.
ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: To find out just what 40 bucks will get you in the toy aisle this season, I've come to Target to check things out. Here's one, it's a remote-controlled robotic puppy that wags its tail and makes funny puppy sounds.
(SOUNDBITE OF A TOY PUPPY)
AUBREY: Jim Eckardt says there was a time he'd filled his shopping cart with these kinds of toys for his six grandchildren. But a few years back, he had an epiphany: The kids all have too much stuff and their parents agreed. A lot of toys just end up as junk.
JIM ECKARDT: That's right, and then they'll probably in a couple of years put it in a garage sale. You look at all the things that we throw away and that money could be put to better use.
AUBREY: But how? After checking out alternatives, Eckhardt settled on the idea of livestock, farm animals. He'd give one animal on behalf of each grandkid.
ECKARDT: We bought one of them, a little flock of chickens, another one I think was a pig. I think actually we bought Lydia a goat.
AUBREY: Now, Lydia, who was about seven at the time and lives in the Bay Area in California, remembers it well. When she heard about the gift, she thought she was getting a new pet.
LYDIA LAPPORTE: Yeah, he gave me a goat. And I remember I didn't really understand. I thought I was actually getting a goat.
AUBREY: But then her mom, Julian Lapporte, explained to her that the gift was really something else entirely. It is a contribution given in her name. She was never going to see this animal but through the organization, Heifer International, a goat would be given from her to a poor family in Vietnam or Africa. The family could drink the goat's milk, breed the animal, and eventually perhaps sell the goat meat.
JULEEN LAPPORTE: It wasn't the way they were thinking of it as (unintelligible) pet. It was actually an animal that was going to help these people earn money for food and clothing, and just for the bare essentials of life.
AUBREY: The idea that giving someone a few goats or a flock of chicks can change their life by giving them a way to earn a living is not new. But how does it actually work? Well, Heifer has been around since the 1940s. It has about a $100 million in annual revenues and 400,000 donors.
Heifer gets high marks for keeping administrative costs low, and using the contributions to both buy the animals and provide training and support to the recipients. In a nutshell, it's the teach a man to fish model.
PROFESSOR DEAN KARLAN: What we're trying to do is establish a base from which individuals who are really, really poor, who are the truly the poorest of the poor, generate a source of income for many years to come.
AUBREY: Dean Karlan is a professor of economics at Yale who studies innovative solutions to poverty. He says groups such as Heifer are popular with donors because people love the idea of connecting one family with one animal. They can tell their friends...
KARLAN: I give somebody a goat. And it's a very real thing and we understand what that is. And it's very concrete and it's yet small enough that we can actually give it. And that makes us feel good. It's much better than thinking I gave $50 towards a $3 million project, of which what did my money really do?
AUBREY: Karlan says the part that's more complicated for donors to understand is that on its own, the gift of one goat or a pig is not a magic bullet. It takes a lot more to lift someone out of poverty and keep them there. It's a complicated process.
KARLAN: It's easy to make things sound good and there are lots of things that work. But it's not always the things that sound best.
AUBREY: Karlan has never evaluated Heifer. But in studying similar programs, he finds what works best is what he calls the big push. You give the recipients livestock. But you also train them to care of their animals, you help them set up savings accounts, get their children in school, even give them short-term food assistance, so they don't end up eating the one goat they've been given.
Steve Werlin who works in Haiti for a charity called Fonkoze, uses this big push approach. We reached him on his mobile phone outside Port-au-Prince, where he just wrapped up a coaching session with woman named Aulani(ph) who was given some goats.
STEVE WERLIN: The ultra-poor are not used to planning of any sort. They're used to waking up every day and figuring out where they are going to get food that day to feed their kids.
AUBREY: But Aulani is now able to plan a bit. Her goats have had kids, so she's got a bunch of them. And she's planning to trade seven of them for a horse, which she'll use to haul more goat meat to market instead of having to carry it herself.
WERLIN: It dramatically expands her ability to make - to have a business.
AUBREY: And this puts her one more step up the long staircase out of poverty.
WERLIN: The kids are getting two meals a day. They're in school. The asset base is starting to develop. All the problems aren't solved, they're still very poor. But they're not desperate.
AUBREY: It's just the beginning of building a better life. And for many donors, their gift of a goat or a chicken is just the beginning, too. Remember Lydia Lapporte, who was confused by her grandfather's gift of a goat? Well, not anymore. She's now 14 and she's helped raise about $20,000 for Heifer from her friends and family.
LAPPORTE: If you think about the big picture and everything that we have, we should be the happiest people, because we're like a lot of the most fortunate.
AUBREY: Lydia says her own awareness of poverty has taught her that getting stuff doesn't make her nearly as happy as giving.
Allison Aubrey, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.