The hardest part about getting someone a cow for Christmas is getting it down the chimney. Fortunately, one organization has found a way—and in the process, it is helping to end world hunger.

With refrigerators still groaning with Thanksgiving leftovers, it can be hard to remember that in too much of the world, people still go to bed hungry each night. But Heifer International is working to fix that. The nonprofit has worked for more than 70 years, in more than 125 countries, to help what it estimates as 25 million families.

It does not help by simply giving money or even food donations, but by providing the equipment, training and animals that help communities learn to take care of themselves, both now and into the future. “Over 795 million people are living with various chronic hunger and poverty issues,” said Bob Bloom, Heifer International Chief Financial Officer. “We’ve working to establish livable wages in our projects and increase them—from say, $1.25 to $1.50 a day—to lift families out of poverty.”

The organization was founded by Dan West, who served in the Spanish Civil War as an aid worker. “His mission was to provide relief, but he soon discovered the meager single cup of milk rationed to the weary refugees once a day was not enough,” said Bloom. “And then he had a thought: What if they had not a cup, but a cow? That ‘teach a man to fish’ philosophy is what drove West to found Heifer International.”

Despite its name, Heifer International doesn’t limit itself to cows. The organization also provides people with goats, chickens, stoves, clean water and other necessities to help them stay nourished and live more sustainably. “Take giving a goat as an example,” said Bloom. “These versatile creatures can supply up to a ton of milk a year, used to make milk, cheese, butter and improved income with the sale of milk products. Not to mention, they can have up to two or three kids per year, provide manure for fertilizer and are small enough to keep on even the smallest farms.” Heifer International helps train people to raise the animals, make use of them and market them.

In addition, the organization has made a concerted effort to empower women by helping them form groups, develop leadership skills, build assets and income, and gain the knowledge and confidence needed to thrive in a formal market. “By combining the provision of livestock with training in animal husbandry, natural resource management, leadership skills and gender equity, we have created a development model that strengthens the social, economic and ecological fabric of a community,” the organization writes on its website.

Recently, Heifer has scaled up its efforts, aiming to take 4 million families out of poverty by 2020. This goal led the organization—which once used “sea cowboys” to accompany and care for animals aboard ships headed to countries in need—to embrace technology such as  enterprise content management software to increase efficiency. Additionally, Heifer’s website makes it easier for people to get involved and help, regardless of their knowledge of agriculture. Heifer International’s forward-thinking use of technology has even led it to present at Gartner’s annual Symposium/ITxpo conference.

These days, people are rejecting the “affluenza” of Black Friday and a Christmas season that’s increasingly focused on consumerism. Instead, many are opting to give gifts that help others. “Imagine if the 226 million Americans who purchased $52 billion worth of stuff during Thanksgiving weekend in 2011 donated that money to charity instead,” writes Melissa Breyer in Treehugger. “For that amount of money, 104 million families in need could have had their lives transformed by the gift of a dairy cow from Heifer International.”

For those of us who eschew stores this time of year and prefer to shop from catalogs and online, Heifer International is tailor-made. For $20, individuals can gift a flock of chickens in someone’s name for the holidays through the online gift catalog at Heifer International’s website. You can order a goat, a heifer or a water buffalo—or a share of one—as easily as you order a book from Amazon. Why? Because Heifer International is the gift that keeps on giving. “Families share the training they receive, and pass on the first female offspring of their livestock to another family,” said Bloom. “This extends the impact of the original gift, allowing a once impoverished family to become donors and full participants in improving their communities.”

The best part? You don’t have to wrap it.

Heifer’s mission is to end hunger and poverty while caring for the Earth. For more than 70 years, Heifer International has provided livestock and environmentally sound agricultural training to improve the lives of those who struggle daily for reliable sources of food and income. Heifer is currently working in more than 30 countries, including the United States, to help families and communities become more self-reliant. For information, visit www.heifer.org, read its blog, follow it on Facebook, on Twitter @Heifer or call 888.5HUNGER (888.548.6437).


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