For do-gooders who still get a thrill from shopping, a new breed of charities offer boutique-ish websites with lots of customization; you can shop your heart out browsing dollar amounts and causes for just the right fit. If you're daunted by the thought of choosing among the million charities currently in operation, start by visiting CharityNavigator.org or CharityWatch.org, both excellent hubs for all things philanthropic. If you think the person receiving the present is best suited to pick it out, JustGive.org lets you buy gift certificates that recipients can allocate to a charity of their choice. And if you don't believe your budget is big enough to have an impact, think again: Our roundup of eight great charities proves that even small donations can make a world of difference.
Learn more ways to change your holiday tradition.
Note: We've researched these groups, with help from the folks at CharityNavigator.org, to ensure that the bulk of individual donations goes to programming or meeting a specific need of the donor's choice, but in some cases, donations might be used in other programmatic ways. Before giving to any charity, always research it yourself.
The gift: Help for an entrepreneur of your choice—from a fisherwoman in Samoa to a grocer in Haiti. It's a microfinance loan, so once the borrower repays you (usually within a year), you can either withdraw your money or reinvest in another venture.
First Book (FirstBook.org)
The gift: Ten books to help a young reader from a low-income family learn her ABCs and 123s. More than 80 percent of preschool and after-school programs for children from low-income families have no age-appropriate books for the kids they serve. Recipients of First Book books participate in community-based mentoring, tutoring, and family literacy programs.
Changing the Present (ChangingthePresent.org)
The gift: Training for two midwives in parts of the world where medical care is scarce, a month's worth of sanitary napkins for 10 Afghan girls ($35), interview-worthy suits for five job applicants—or any of a number of other ways to help women. Changing the Present is a clearinghouse for specific charitable requests, grouped by cause; if you'd rather clear land mines or feed the hungry, there's something here for you too.
Nothing but Nets (NothingbutNets.net)
The gift: Malaria prevention—in the form of insecticide-treated bed nets—for five families in Africa, where the disease still kills nearly a million children each year. The nets, which are big enough to protect a family of four, remain effective for up to four years.
Modest Needs (ModestNeeds.org)
The gift: Payment of emergency expenses (such as the $92.70 that wasn't covered by insurance for a doctor visit) for a family without a financial cushion. The idea is to prevent a downward spiral into poverty that can result from a single unaffordable expense. Recipients are otherwise financially self-sufficient; requests for assistance are vetted.
Arbor Day Foundation (ArborDay.org)
The gift: Twenty-five thousand square feet of rainforest saved in Central America. Or 100 trees planted on the post-Katrina Gulf Coast or in national forests ravaged by wildfires. Reforestation doesn't just preserve ecosystems and restore wildlife habitats; a mature tree can store about one metric ton of CO2 emissions.
Doctors Without Borders (DoctorsWithoutBorders.org)
The gift: A medical kit containing basic drugs, supplies, equipment, and dressings to treat 1,500 patients for three months wherever people are coping with disaster and conflict—from Sri Lanka to Sudan.
The Hunger Project (THP.org)
The gift: Help for a community in Africa, Asia, or Latin America. Your donation could pay for an electric generator to be used by a cluster of African villages; generators provide electricity for health centers and light classrooms used for evening literacy programs.