Gifts That Change Lives

Contributing to charities in other people's names

Sure, you could give your business colleague or client another fruit basket, golf putter, or engraved pen set this holiday. But why be boring and predictable? Choose something dramatic, creative--and compassionate. For the executive who has everything, consider...a cow.

No kidding. This cow will not be delivered to your colleague's or client's home, a relief to both them and their neighbors. But a living, breathing bovine will go to a family in Bangladesh--and it will make a huge difference. Handling the arrangements is Heifer Project International, a Little Rock (Ark.)-based nonprofit that has been sending livestock to needy families in developing countries since 1944. Your cow will cost you $500, and the person on your gift list will receive a card describing how this milk-producing heifer can provide four gallons a day that a family can consume or sell. For $120 to $250, you can also donate a pig, sheep, llama, goat, or water buffalo. A smaller donation of $10 to $50 buys an animal "share" (www.heifer.org, 800 422-0755).

Unorthodox gifts like these that actually do good in the world--in ways an engraved pen set cannot--are a fresh idea for the business-gift giver. True, you can always write a check to charity in someone else's name. But the Web is making it easier to find more creative choices that appeal to the philanthropic spirit. They're "something your tax adviser and your spiritual adviser can agree on," says Randi Shade, co-founder of Charitygift Services, an "e-philanthropy" site that sends a handsome card to let your recipients know you've donated to charity in their name (table).

If you're excited about helping the developing world but not sure about a heifer, the Seva Foundation of Berkeley, Calif., lets you help underwrite such services as the training of Mayan midwives in Guatemala and shipments of cataract-surgical supplies to Nepal. Seva also sends colorful gift cards (www.seva.org, 800 223-7382). Closer to home, certain U.S. affiliates of CityCares (www.citycares.org, 404 875-7334), such as Hands On Atlanta, will deploy volunteers in your recipient's name, to tutor inner-city kids or renovate schools. Suggested donation: $50.

You may be more intent on finding a tangible gift, yet one that still helps charity. In that case, check out the Web site for Robert Redford's Sundance Catalog Co., which sells finely crafted apparel and home items from its base in West Valley, Utah (www.sundancecatalog.com, 800 422-2770). The company donates 10% of its net annual income to independent filmmakers and environmental projects and also gives merchandise to the Juvenile Diabetes Foundation and other causes. Another option: Create a gift basket using Paul Newman's famous salsas and salad dressings, knowing that the actor's Westport (Conn.) company's aftertax profits go to educational projects. The Newman's Own Web site (www.newmansown.com) fills you in on the company's philosophy.

FLOWER POWER. Still another way to do good is to make a theme donation geared to your recipient's hobby or interest. For the book lover, there's First Book, a Washington (D.C.) literacy project that buys books for underprivileged children (www.firstbook.org, 800 333-6737). Your favorite gourmand might appreciate your donation to America's Second Harvest (www.secondharvest.org, 800 771-2303) in Chicago, the nation's largest hunger relief organization. For the dedicated gardener, look into a gift membership to the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center (www.wildflower.org, 512 292-4200) in Austin, Tex., which promotes native plants. And for the clothes horse, the Dress for Success network outfits low-income women for job interviews (www.dressforsuccess.org, 212 545-3769).

All four acknowledge donations. And all leave both you and your holiday gift recipient happy that you didn't go with a fruitcake.