Originally posted at Smorgasblurb.

No, you’re not really buying a Christmas heifer. I realize this might be a Santa’s-not-real moment, but don’t rush to label me a charitable Scrooge. I love Christmas and the wreath of generosity that surrounds the season.

You aren’t buying a heifer, but this isn’t hush-hush. Heifer Internationalthe heifer-distributing marvel, even tells you so. When you make your purchase, they note that “every gift to Heifer International represents a gift to our total mission.” In other words, when you “gift a heifer,” you grow the general fund. Nearly every donated dollar (94%) is an unrestricted, no-strings-attached general fund contribution.

Heifer

Heifers are certainly bought by Heifer International. Over 40,000 of them in 2010! But your gift of one heifer isn’t directly buying one heifer. So, are they lying to us? I’ll make the question more personal: Am I lying to you? Because here’s the truth: My organization does it too.

While Heifer pioneered the approach, most charities followed closely behind them—World VisionCompassionThe Red Cross and even my employer, HOPE. While we all state something like “the gifts depicted in this catalog symbolically represent our work,” most people assume they’re really buying heifers, goats, sewing machines, honeybees, trees and art classes. The catalog phenomenon, at its core, is beautiful. I laud efforts to inspire generosity and cultivate significance in the giving process. But, are we swindling you, the generous Christmas giver?

It’s an interesting ethical case study. I’ll offer the following considerations:

Integrity in the Means: We can’t raises millions by making this appeal: Make a general, undesignated gift to help us cover our overhead costs this Christmas season! Do charitable ends justify ethically cloudy means? I don’t think so. Swindling is never good, even for the noblest of causes. Small adjustments can ensure no one is tricked by the process.

HOPE, for example, directs all catalog purchases directly to the featured country. While “buying a sewing machine for a Congolese entrepreneur” doesn’t mean your funding will directly buy a sewing machine, your donation does benefit our work in Congo. World Vision does a great job of forthrightly describing their process (pictured below). Hold your charity to a high standard and call us out if you spot duping.

World Vision Catalog

Focus on the Ends: Compelling marketing and heartfelt appeals should never trump your belief in the organizations you support. Will “the heifer” be a meal or a business? Do Kenyan families need heifers? Will the heifers be given in dignifying ways? Does the heifer-giver share my faith and values? What percentage of my gift will go to buying the heifer and what percentage to overhead? These questions—questions of implementation and effectiveness—should drive Christmas giving. It is the heifer beneficiary, after all, whose opinion matters most. Knowing that opinion demands investigation of the ends.

Heifers are big business at Christmastime. And for many reasons, this is exciting. This season is about connections among people. Jesus connecting with humanity as an infant. Families connecting with one another. Friends connecting over spiced cider. And this is what endears me to gift catalogs: Givers connecting with receivers—and ultimately beneficiaries—in meaningful, tangible ways. Not a donation into the abyss, but a shared moment between people. As organizations, we need to respect the significance of these moments by elevating our integrity in how we create them.