The Keller family finished much of their Christmas shopping in early December. But this year's purchases didn't include the usual tried-and-true gifts like cologne, decorative boxer shorts, bath sets and charm bracelets.
Instead, at an "alternative gift fair" held recently in Takoma Park, the family purchased a variety of items not to be found in department stores: a $5 pair of chickens, given in the name of Jay's elderly aunt to a family in Sierra Leone; a scarlet macaw nest in Guatemala, adopted in the name of Anna's brother for $50; some $10 tire-changing tool kits for a District youth group in the name of two cousins.
Jay Keller said his family just got tired of elaborate gift-buying.
"This time of the year, when everyone is just overwhelmed by 'Let's get presents -- I don't know what they need, but I need to get presents,' this makes both ends feel a little bit better about it, at a time when there is so much upheaval in the world," Keller said.
Donating to charities on behalf of friends and relatives and then giving them a card telling them of the donation -- known as "alternative gifts" or "gifts of service" -- is catching on with givers and organizations, which increasingly rely on it as a source of revenue.
Granted, alternative gifts are still a microscopic part of the estimated $209 billion in holiday sales expected this year. But organizations that use them as a fund-raising tool say they provide a way for donors to stretch their dollars and do some good when that last-minute-shopping desperation sets in.
"Often they end up purchasing something that people really don't need -- another stupid tie or another sweater that [the recipient] just throws in the closet," said Tony Paikeday, director of development for the Seva Foundation, an international health organization that now funds itself mostly through its gifts of service program. Among its projects: cataract operations in India, Nepal and Tibet that donors underwrite for $40 each.
"It's just amazing what you can do with $40," Paikeday said. "You can restore someone's eyesight."
The gifts are as varied as the organizations that offer them. Most are modestly priced. Some examples: $5 for a box of doughnuts for volunteers at Friends of Sligo Creek; $10 for a backpack full of school supplies and toys for a child in Afghanistan, from the Academy for Educational Development; $30 for a packet of bees for a household in the Dominican Republic, from Heifer International; and $50 for a worm-filled composting bin for a local classroom, from EcoStewards Alliance, a Burke environmental group.
A few gifts carry a heftier price tag. For $20,000, for example, a donor can give a water system to a parched village in Guatemala; the Seva Foundation says it receives about a half-dozen such donations each year.
Silver Spring resident David Devlin-Foltz recently joined forces with his brother in Connecticut to buy their mother a $100 gift certificate from DevelopmentSpace, a Web site that sets up direct donations to any of dozens of projects worldwide, such as toilets and showers in a rural Indian community, a solar-power project in Bhutan or a summer camp in Colorado for inner-city youths.
Devlin-Foltz's mother, now 82, is getting difficult to shop for, he said.
"It's not like she's got everything, but she's got everything that we can easily think of to give her," he said. "I thought this was an opportunity for her to allocate money that will make a big difference -- a lot of bang for the buck."
Charity watchdog groups urge caution, however, noting that it is difficult for individual donors to independently verify organizations' claims.
"Look at the fine print," advised Bennett Weiner of the Better Business Bureau Wise Giving Alliance. "It may reveal that the donation you give may not necessarily be spent on the specific item that you intend."
In fact, Heifer International, a 58-year-old program that ships livestock -- chosen by the donors -- to needy communities nationally and internationally, notes on its Web site that specific animals or specific projects designated by donors "are used as requested until that need is fully met. Any remaining money is used where it is needed most."
Spokeswoman Christine Volkmer said it would be too difficult to alert donors when their animals are delivered someplace other than where they intended.
"It would be so cost-prohibitive, it would defeat the purpose of what we're trying to do," she said.
Where possible, organizations do try to direct the money to the program, country or item for which it was donated.
The Academy for Educational Development, a Washington international aid group, charges $10 for the backpacks it distributes to Afghan children. Of that, $7 pays for the backpack and its contents, and $3 goes to educational programs and needs, said spokeswoman Mary Maguire. The organization absorbs the project's administrative costs, she said.
"It's important for the donor to know that all of their $10 is going toward the production, distribution and transportation of the materials of the BluePack and . . . toward the longer-term education-building activities," Maguire said. "I think people want that."
At the alternative gift fair at Takoma Park Presbyterian Church two weeks ago, a guitar duo entertained while shoppers wandered from table to table, questioning organizations' representatives and checking off choices on their "shopping lists" -- $15 for sneakers for a Kenyan female athlete, $25 for a water-quality monitoring kit for Friends of Sligo Creek, a $10 gallon of paint for Christmas in April, $50 for summer camp for a child from the Silver Spring InterFaith Housing Coalition.
The fair, sponsored by the Center for the New American Dream, in Takoma Park, is in its fourth year. It raised $16,000 for the 17 local and international groups that participated.
After purchases were made, calligraphers wrote out elegant certificates telling recipients what had been purchased in their name.
D.C. historian Susan Schreiber browsed the tables, seeking meaningful gifts for her teenagers, Molly and Daniel, and other family members. Schreiber said she's been trying to simplify the holiday season in her household.
"All of us have been overwhelmed by the amount of stuff coming into our house that kids get," said Schreiber, who purchased two backpacks from the Academy for Educational Development in the names of her children.