Every holiday season, we run around buying gifts for our family members and friends. Some of those gifts are afterthoughts, something to give just because gifts are expected. In fact, John Waldfogel, author of Scroogenomics: Why You Shouldn’t Buy Presents for the Holidays, estimated that in 2007, Americans spent $12 billion on gifts that were not wanted or valued by the recipients.

When I came across the World Vision Gift Catalog, I instantly loved the idea of giving poverty-fighting gifts in the name of someone rather than giving them a gift that would simply collect dust in the closet. The catalog features gifts ranging from $16 to $39,000 and is full of beautiful photos and inspiring stories. For example, instead of giving your child’s teacher a stale gift set, you can buy art and music instruction for a child in a third world country for $20. A mere $75 buys a goat for a family in need, and $30 buys five ducks. There is a myriad of gifts to choose from, and each will make a difference in someone’s life.

Devin Hermanson, the national director of the World Vision Gift Catalog, took the time to answer some of my questions about the catalog and its unique gifts.

Where did the idea for the World Vision Gift Catalog come from?
Devin: The World Vision Gift Catalog was created in 1996 as a way for parents to teach their children about charitable giving. A married couple worked with World Vision to come up with specific items that would illustrate the needs of the poor, their children were given an amount to donate, and they were then allowed to choose where their donations would go. Since then, the World Vision Gift Catalog has grown to help hundreds of thousands of people. Since 1996, World Vision’s Gift Catalog has raised over $130 million.

How can people verify that their gifts are in fact making a difference for someone?
Devin: We’ve heard very clearly from donors over the years that they want as much of every donation as possible to benefit children. We honor that by focusing our efforts on keeping our overhead very low (only 11% in 2009).

So, while we can’t afford to report on the impact of every chicken, goat, or malaria bed net, we do provide excellent reports on the overall work that World Vision does.

Another way to understand the impact of donations on the lives of those we serve is to hear their stories in their own words. You’ll find several videos on the Gift Catalog’s Facebook page that feature brave people from several countries who have seen their lives transformed with the help of generous donors.

What is your most popular gift?
Devin: Goats continue to be the most popular gift selection. Last year, more than 50,000 goats were purchased by donors. Other popular gifts include: sheep, chickens, soccer balls, ducks, and an education for a child. You can give a goat for $75. Many items are priced under $30.

How many gifts do you sell throughout the year?
Devin: Last year 100,000 donors purchased more than 600,000 items that raised over $28 million.

Some gifts offer matching contributions from corporations, but note that amounts may vary throughout the year. Do donors know how much of a matching contribution was made on their particular gift?
Devin: The value of some donation items is multiplied through the combined impact of grant funds and donated goods. Through these items, we are raising money to help implement and supplement programs that are funded primarily by grant or corporate donors. Over the course of a year, some grant projects may be completed, and others may be awarded. In the same way, the corporate donations we receive can fluctuate throughout the year. These variations can result in a change in the overall leveraged value of a donor’s gift, and at times the change can occur between the time of publication of the catalog and the time of donation. However, our hope is that most donors are interested simply in knowing that we partner with others to help as many kids as possible, and that they want to be a part of that.

Do you disclose which country a particular gift is going to?
Devin: Most often, many countries will receive a particular type of donation, such as a goat. It simply isn’t cost effective to track an individual donation to a specific country. It’s all part of our focus on making sure that as much money as possible is spent on helping children and families.

I hope that readers will realize that it takes very little to change a life with a donation. I know that people are feeling strapped, but for as little as $25 someone can donate a pair of chickens to a family. Those chickens can change generations of lives in a community! There are plenty of other choices in the World Vision Gift Catalog that are both inexpensive and tremendously powerful in impact.