Gifts that give back

It’s the season of giving — but sometimes all the excess can be disheartening. With a growing interest in sustainability and helping others, many shoppers are demanding more from the items they buy. Finding a meaningful gift now includes helping others too — like gifts that support charitable organizations, are environmentally-friendly and support fair treatment of workers.

Sound good? Here are some ideas for gifts that give back.

Cards with seeds built in. Do you or someone you know love to send Christmas cards or adorn gifts with custom tags? Companies like Winnipeg’s Botanical Paperworks not only use 100 per cent recycled materials to make their stationary items, there are seeds made right into the paper. After your recipients enjoy the item, they can plant it in their garden. There are a variety of flowers to choose from — including snap dragons and English daisies — as well as spruce trees for the holidays.

Fair trade goodies. ‘Tis the season for tempting treats like chocolate, tea, wine and coffee. However, local farmers in developing countries often are not paid fairly for their labours and many workers face unsafe and unfair conditions. That’s why more people are looking for the “fair trade” certification — that means everyone involved in the process must meet a certain set of standards that ensure workers’ rights, fair wages and safety standards. Money also goes towards community development too. (For more information, visit

Fair trade décor and accessories. Looking for a unique gift idea for someone who has a flare for fashion and art? Handmade items from around the world can add a colourful touch. With fair trade items, sellers work directly with local artists and artisans and adhere to fair trade principles. Stores like Ten Thousand Villages offer a selection of goods that not only satisfy the desire for a unique gift but also makes sure that workers are treated fairly and are well compensated for their creative efforts.

Sweet treats. Whatever the occasion, a little something sweet like confections or cupcakes never go amiss. But here’s something to sweeten the deal: at Eat My Words, the proceeds from their “Treats with Heart” go towards the Stephen Lewis Foundation, which supports grassroots groups in Sub-Saharan Africa that are a lifeline for people suffering from AIDS and HIV. (Like the Grandmother Connection, which helps grandmothers raise their orphaned grandchildren whose parents died of AIDS.)

A gift certificate to a craft or hobby store. Many people put their talents to good use by creating for a cause, like making quilts for Alzheimer’s patients or pitching in to build homes. However, these thoughtful hobbyists donate more than their time — they often use their own tools and purchase their own supplies.

Trees. Trees provide much more than some shade and greenery in developing countries. In a school yard, they offer a chance for students to learn agricultural skills, provide much needed food and even some motivation to attend school. For a family, they provide valuable nourishment as well as food they can sell and trade. As little as $15 will buy a mango tree for a local school (Plan Canada), and $75 will buy a family supply of moringa trees — a miracle plant that also provides animal feed, rope fibre, cleansers and medicine (available through World Vision).

Seeds. Crops can also make an impact and offer an alternative to growing illicit substances. For instance, even as little as $20 provides enough seeds for a healthy vegetable garden can provide a family with importance nutritional and give them some extra to sell at the market to — income they can earn and control (available from CHF). An Endless Harvest kit ($40, Plan Canada) includes the tools, training and seeds needed to set up and manage a small farm.

A wild animal. Just what the youngsters and animal lovers in your life need: a tiger, grey wolf, polar bear or blue shark. The World Wildlife Fund Canada offers Symbolic Wild Life Adoptions to raise funds for conservation projects. This gift is more than symbolic — there’s something huggable too. Each $40 kit contains a plush toy, reusable gift bag and a letter outlining how your contribution will be used. ($30 of the purchase price is tax deductible. For more information, visit WWF Canada.)

A farm animal. True, sheep, chickens, goats, cows and other livestock aren’t usually on our shopping lists unless we’re heading to the grocery store. However, for a poor family they can provide a renewable source of food (like milk and eggs) as well as tradable items like wool — not to mention breeding potential. A goat ($40, CHF) for a family in Bangladesh adds little to the family’s workload and requires so little space they can be raised at home. A trio of chicks for $17 (from Plan Canada) will provide the family with eggs for food and income, and teach children how to raise and manage livestock. (For more ideas, visit

Tools. This classic gift for the guys has even more impact in an developing community. At $39, a toolkit from Oxfam can provide the means to build homes, prepare fields for planting and harvest crops.

If you’re thinking on a local level, many community organizations and schools often needs supplies and tools as well. Many hardware and home improvement stores have big sales throughout the year.

Health. Many gifts such water purification, medications, tests and home birthing kits can literally save lives. As little as $10 can buy mosquito nets to help prevent malaria or a polio vaccine — and $80 can ensure a mother has a safe birth and follow-up care for her new born. If you’ve got room in your budget or are looking for a group gift, then $150 will purchase a Motorcyle Ambulance (Plan Canada) that can bring healthcare workers to remote areas and villagers to clinics. For $195, you can stock a pharmacy (also from Plan Canada), and $400 will stock a professionally staffed Mobile Medical Unit (World Vision).

A business in a box. You don’t need to be a venture capitalist to help someone in a developing country make a living. Business “kits” provide people with the training and supplies they’ll need to create a sustainable livelihood. For instance, $60 will help a woman in Zimbabwe — where income for women is hard to come by — to set up their own soap shop (available from CHF). Just $55 buys a Beekeeping Kit to start a family business (Plan Canada) and $225 dollars will build a safe, eco-friendly cook stove for a community in Guatemala through the Guatemala Stove Project.

Toys. This idea isn’t just for Christmas: an emerging trend in children’s birthday parties is bringing gifts for a less privileged child instead of the guest of honour. If there isn’t a toy drive at hand, a local women and children’s shelter will welcome the gift of toys, art supplies or sports equipment to “let kids be kids.”

In addition, many organizations including Right to Play give children in developing countries a chance to develop their health and skills through sports and play. UNICEF, World Vision and Plan Canada also have gifts like school supplies, art kits, soccer balls, recreation kits and bicycles available too.

Birth certificate/registration. ($25, Plan Canada). It’s something most of us have, but take for granted what it means. Every year, 48 million children aren’t registered at birth — meaning they lack important legal and human rights protections. A birth certificate helps protect them from exploitation and provides access to social services.

Hope for patients. Because of the stigma surrounding mental illness, many patients in care facilities don’t get a lot of gifts or visitors during the holiday season. A gift to someone in a hospital, treatment centre or long term care facility can let them know someone cares. For instance, the Gifts of Light campaign at from Centre for Addiction and Mental Health Foundation offers practical gifts like clothing (think warm robes, blankets and slippers), activities and personal care products. Individual gifts start as low as $20 and gift bundles start at $90.

Support for caregivers. This year, the Alzheimer’s Society of Canada launched its line of “Forget Me Not” gifts to support patients and their families. For example, $60 can fund three months of a professionally-led support group for caregivers — and $120 dollars pays for two training sessions for professional caregivers. (Visit Forget Me Not Giving for details.

Naturally, this is just a small sampling of the many gifts out there. When in doubt, find out what you can about your recipient’s passions and volunteer activities and gear your gift accordingly.

Do you have a gift idea to share with readers? Help build this list in the comments!