Giving with Benefits Ditch the waste and consumerism and give back...

giv, credit: Tim Green, FlickrCCFor most Americans, the holiday season brings the unwanted gift of financial stress. According to the National Retail Foundation, the average American consumer spent over $600 on holiday-related shopping in 2009. The season of giving has become the de facto season of consumerism. And oftentimes, money is wasted on products bought only in obligation that will contribute to waste via shipping emissions, packaging and all that ripped-up wrapping paper. The holiday waste adds up. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, household waste increases by 25% between November and January, collectively adding an extra 1 million tons of garbage to U.S. landfills. For those inclined toward giving back instead of giving stuff, there are many new online tools to help.

“Every bit of evidence shows most people are sick of the gift-giving stuff,” says Bill McKibben, author of Hundred Dollar Holiday. “It’s clearly better to celebrate the birthday of someone who told us to give everything to the poor by giving something to the poor.”

On-the-Ground Groups

According to the American Institute of Philanthropy (AIP), there are approximately 1.9 million nonprofits in the U.S., and many represent causes that support a healthy planet, whether protecting wildlife, preserving rainforests or improving recycling rates. The organization Heifer International works with communities across the world to end poverty and hunger while at the same time being a steward for the planet. When someone donates to Heifer, they help provide farm animals and training to families in need across the world, from Africa to Latin America.

For a gift that benefits ecosystems more directly, there is The Nature Conservancy. Donations made in another’s name will go to the group’s “Plant a Billion Trees’ campaign in Brazil’s Atlantic Forest—one of the most endangered tropical forests in the world, home to 200 bird species that are found nowhere else, with biodiversity that rivals that of the Amazon.

One of the most popular gift-giving options is indirectly “adopting” an animal by providing funds to help save threatened or endangered animals across the world. At the World Wildlife Foundation (WWF), you can “Adopt a Species,” like the Bald Eagle or Rockhopper Penguin (think bright, spiky feathers—perhaps best known from the movie Happy Feet). The money goes to WWF’s global efforts to protect the animal of your choice and its habitat, and the person whose name the adoption was done in receives a small toy, T-shirt or certificate along with the donation particulars. Other organizations like the Elephant Sanctuary feed and protect specific species with donations.

Open-Ended Giving

People are often unsure which charities to support. That’s OK! Places like TisBest Philanthropy and JustGive act as online giving platforms, where you can easily browse charities by categories, including environmental, health and women’s issues, and donate in someone’s name. You can also purchase gift cards for the sites, giving holiday recipients a chance to choose for themselves where the money will go.

“Sometimes you can miss and give to a charity that’s not closest to their heart or closest to the recipient’s need,” says Kendall Webb, founder of JustGive. “We are finding that it’s a much more interactive presence if you let the recipient choose the charity.”

AIP helps donors decide by acting as a charity watchdog. The nonprofit, independent group rates 500 charity organizations three times a year in its Charity Rating Guide and publishes the top-rated charities—those groups that spend 75% or more of their budgets on programs—online. Among environmental groups, Sierra Club Foundation, Rocky Moun-tain Elk Foundation and Trust for Public Land all received “A+” ratings.

When you give the gift of a charity donation, says Erik Marks, the founder of TisBest, “It [seems] to fulfill a lot of the purposes of gift giving, meaning to extend the arm of generosity, to respect the wishes of the recipients, and to build communication about something meaningful between the two parties involved.”