Homes for the Holidays: Gifts that Help Haiti

Not sure what to get Mom? A donation toward shelters in Haiti offers two gifts for the price of one

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As the holiday shopping season kicks into high gear, charities like World Vision are urging people not to forget about Haiti. The Christian relief organization, based outside Seattle, recently distributed its holiday gift catalog, and its logic goes something like this: Instead of buying your brother-in-law another sweater he probably won't wear, how about making a donation in his honor to help a family of five in Port-au-Prince move out of a tent and into a home?

Other nonprofits are also encouraging consumers to remember earthquake survivors this holiday season. At Heifer International — which, like World Vision, has a long history of getting people to give gifts of dairy- and wool-producing animals for donation to needy families around the world — 3,000 of its project families were affected by the quake. And the Lambi Fund of Haiti, in operation since 1994, allows donors to choose from such gifts as fishing equipment, farming tools and honeybees.

The trend of dual-purpose charitable gifts has become more popular during the recession, says Charity Navigator CEO Ken Berger, since they offer a way to give a gift to a loved one and a charity at the same time. "We're seeing more and more evidence that people are trying to hit two birds with one stone," says Berger, whose nonprofit evaluates charities.

Since scams proliferate during the holidays, he advises consumers to get as much information as possible before opening their wallets (and never to donate over the phone). Charity Navigator rates World Vision, Heifer and the Lambi Fund as exceptional or good, since their administrative and fundraising expenses don't exceed 25% of their operating budgets. In other words, you can be secure in the knowledge that the bulk of what's donated will go to communities in need.

World Vision is perhaps best known for distributing animals to help communities support themselves (goats are by far its most popular gift-catalog item), but while hunger remains a serious problem in Haiti, the Jan. 12 earthquake made housing an equally important issue. Ten months after the quake, an estimated 1.3 million Haitians are still living in makeshift camps. That's why World Vision's catalog now includes the option of putting $50 or $100 toward building supplies for modest but sturdy shelters.

About 500 World Vision homes made of concrete, steel and recycled materials have been constructed so far in and around Port-au-Prince. The houses, designed to withstand earthquakes and winds of up to 110 m.p.h. (175 km/h) made it through Hurricane Tomas in early November, and the goal is to build as many as 2,000 of them, using $14.5 million in matching funds from the U.S. government to triple each donation that World Vision receives through its catalog.

"What we're trying to do is build sustainable communities," says Devin Hermanson, senior director of World Vision's gift catalog. "Building homes is a natural outcropping of that." And for Haitians, a safe home is truly a gift that keeps giving.

This article originally appeared in the Dec. 13, 2010 issue of TIME.