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Gifts that do good

This year give a gift that will keep doing good all year long. By Teri Goldberg

’Twas the week before Christmas, when all through the house,
The only creature still stirring was a computer mouse;
A few last-minute gifts and we’re almost there,
But if the parcels arrive on time we really don’t care,
Because these kind of gifts will do good all year.

At this point, few of us really want to battle the crowds in the brick-and-mortar stores, and there’s no guarantee gifts bought online will arrive on time. So why not just give gifts that give back?

One long-standing symbol of holiday giving is the Salvation Army Santa Clauses that dot the American landscape. Last year, 20,000 bell ringers collected $90 million in those heavy red metal pots. Funds are used to support programs that help the hungry, the elderly and ill, children, the homeless, disaster victims and the disabled.

This year, anyone with a computer can become a virtual bell ringer since the salvationarmyusa.org brought its “Red Kettle” campaign online. Cyber Santas just register online and then send e-mails to friends and family asking for contributions. The Web site tracks how much each bell ringer raises.

This season, the Salvation Army also offers its “Angel Giving Tree” online, a program that distributes toys to needy children. Cyber shoppers simply pick out a gift online. Less than $10 buys Elmo’s “Big Lift-and-Look Book” for a toddler, a vertical checkers game for pre-teens ages 4 to 9, or a monopoly game, targeted at teenagers.

Salvation Army Santas quietly disappear from the sidewalks just about when Kris Kringle is taking off from the North Pole. But the cyber programs run until Dec. 31.

Another program that collects toys for disadvantaged children is the Marine Corps Reserve’s toysfortots.org. Set up an appointment early in the season and a marine will actually come to your home to pick up donations. Check the Web site for details. 

Offbeat giving
An offbeat giving program that’s gaining in popularity is the worldvision.org. Founded in 1950, World Vision helps communities in more than 100 countries help themselves. The holiday gift catalog lets donors participate in programs that provide health, education, agriculture, water, sanitation or small business support to struggling communities. For example, $20 “buys” a backpack filled with supplies for child in the United States or 10 ducks for a disadvantaged family in a third world country. In one year, 10 ducks can yield thousands of eggs, which the family can eat and/or sell to buy other much-needed supplies. In the fiscal year 2003, the gift catalog brought in $5.8 million from 30,000 donors.

This year, cyber donors also can help provide emergency relief to children in Iraq and South Africa. A $100 donation funds a family survival kit – a package prepared specifically for each disaster — which includes survival gear such as blankets, water purification tablets and cooking supplies.

Thousands of nonprofits have Web sites with electronic giving options, from national charities such as the American Heart Association to smaller nonprofits such as sharecancersupport.org, a self-help organization for women with ovarian and breast cancer. Electronic database guidestar.org provides basic information on more than 850,000 nonprofits. Earth-friendly giftsSome groups offer gifts where a certain percent is donated to charity. For the second year, the California Department of Conservation published its greengiftguide.com to help consumers isolate Earth-friendly gifts.

The guide showcases both mom-and-pop shops and mainstream stores. Nationally known patagonia.com not only sells products made out of recycled fleece but the company also pledges 1 percent of its sales or 10 percent of pretax profits, which ever is greater, to environmental programs. Smaller cyber-and-catalog shop planetdog.com stocks Earth-friendly presents for the pooch. Make sure to check out the sale section. The Portland, Maine-based shop donates 10 percent of its annual profits to Planet Dog Philanthropy, a company foundation.

One of my favorite sites is gearthatgives.com, a one-stop gift shop, comprised of five boutiques, which support hunger, breast cancer, children, rainforest or animal rescue. The Seattle-based company stocks close to 500 gifts from 46 countries, including CDs with music from around the world to hand-crafted boxes made of cloves.

“The business is now operating at essentially a break-even level while generating substantial royalty payments to help support the various causes,” says Greg Hesterberg, the company's president. “We'd like to keep it that way for the long term," says Hesterberg.

Card-carrying union members can help support organized labor at one-stop union shop unionshop.aflcio.org/shop/links.cfm set up by the AFLCIO. The No Sweat shop nosweatapparel.com sells only 100 percent union-made goods, from t-shirts that say “No Sweat,” to fleece jackets and mohair scarves.

Before you shopNo matter where you decide to give, a few tips about giving online may serve as useful reminders:

1. Use the same caution as with all Web transactions: Only give to a known entity or one you have researched; pay with a credit card; keep track of your contributions; and double-check your credit-card bill.

2. Research the organization either online or by making a few phone calls. Useful research sites include give.org the BBB Wise Giving Alliance and nonprofits.org the Internet Nonprofit Center.

If you are considering making a large donation:

3. Read the trade publications. Targeted for professionals, the trades may offer additional insight into philanthropic trends and what the organizations are saying about you, the donor. The Chronicle of Philanthropy is the most popular among fund-raisers.

4. Check tax status. Tax exempt and tax deductible are not the same. Tax exempt means the organization is exempt from paying taxes but does not necessarily mean contributions are tax deductible.

5. Take the time to make an educated decision. Read annual reports, visit the program and talk to other donors.

Teri Goldberg is MSNBC.com’s shopping writer. Write to her at personalshopper@msnbc.com