Heifer International Banks On Holiday Giving

Americans make more charitable donations than people of any other country, and this is the time of year they dig the deepest. In Little Rock, Arkansas, that means the anti-poverty charity, Heifer International, is going full throttle. Contributors purchase living things, which are donated to struggling families in 52 countries.

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The season of peace in the Christian world is also a season of giving, and in America many non-profit organizations depend on seasonal generosity during the Christmas holidays. Americans can make more charitable donations than anyone, and this is the time of year they dig the deepest. In Little Rock, Arkansas, that means the charity Heifer International is going full throttle. NPR's John Burnett paid a visit.

JOHN BURNETT, BYLINE: The phone room inside Heifer International's modern, airy, four-storey headquarters in Little Rock is hectic these days.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: So a pig is 120. So you'd like two pigs. Oh, what a wonderful gift. Thank you very much.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: We have the share the goat for 10. We have a share of the sheep for 10...

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: We certainly appreciate your generous donation and wish you guys a very happy holiday season.

BURNETT: Annually, this charity takes in about $100 million from mostly small U.S. donors. And 80 to 85 percent of it comes in around Christmas.

Pierre Ferrari is CEO of Heifer.

PIERRE FERRARI: With the focus on donations at the very end of the year, we're either in the champagne business, which essentially sells all its products on New Year's Eve. Or we're in the turkey business which, of course, is around Thanksgiving. So, that extreme skew in the donation pad is obviously very anxiety provoking. But we're used to it and we plow ourselves through that.

BURNETT: You may have seen Heifer's seasonal mascot - a goat in a Santa hat - popping up on websites. Or you may have received one of its 16 million holiday catalogues. It should be noted that Heifer underwrites several public radio stations around the country, but not NPR.

Heifer International pioneered animal husbandry as a form of sustainable development nearly 70 years ago. Contributors purchase living things, which are donated to struggling families in 52 countries, such as goats for Tanzanians, chicks for Ecuadorans, honey bees for Ghanaians, and guinea pigs for Peruvians.

No, they're not pets; they're dinner.

OSCAR CASTANEDA: Dolores Delgado is a person that lives in the area of Cuzco, Peru.

BURNETT: Oscar Castaneda, chief of Heifer's Americas Program, says a module of guinea pigs - one male and nine females - changed Dolores Delgado's life.

CASTANEDA: And they began reproducing as guinea pigs. So from a period of three, four months, she moved from having nothing to eat in their house to have a surplus that she can sell in the market.

BURNETT: Under the Heifer program, the recipient must pass on some of the offspring of their animals to other families so that the gift multiplies - it pays forward. This model of international development, giving breeding animals, has proven to be a successful tool for improving lives, as well as fundraising. From 2000 until the beginning of the Great Recession, Heifer's donations grew from $10 million to $100 million.

The model has proven so attractive at raising money, in fact, that it's been copied by at least three other major charities. In their current holiday catalogues, World Vision, Oxfam and Save the Children also offer goats or cows or chicks.

Heifer's success coincided with the trend of alternative giving, giving something more meaningful than a talking watch or a robotic vacuum cleaner.

TIFFANY: This is Tiffany. How may I help you?

SHIRLEY CARNE: Well, we're going to donate one goat to whoever you choose to give it to.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

TIFFANY: OK.

CARNE: OK. One sheep, one box or whatever you do it with the bees. However they come...

BURNETT: Shirley Carne, from Detroit, called up Heifer to spend $290 that she collected from friends. The operators say a lot of their donors are older.

Alfred Koller, from New York, is donating a sheep in the name of his wife's sister.

ALFRED KOLLER: We do it at Christmastime because we're older people now. We're in our 70s and we basically got everything we need. And the rest we give away.

BURNETT: At Heifer International, 73 cents out of every dollar goes to programs. Charity Navigator, the online nonprofit evaluator, gives it a good rating - three out of four stars. Charity Watch gives it an A-minus.

From Heifer's perspective, it's maddening for a charity to get more than 80 percent of its donations in one month. So, they want to plant the idea: Would anyone like to give a module of guinea pigs for a birthday, a wedding, or a bar mitzvah?

John Burnett, NPR News

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