Anyone want water for Christmas?
Or food? Or blankets? There's no end to the list of useful, inexpensive gifts you can give.
NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) – Talk about too much choice.
For Christmas, my family agreed we would give a small gift to just one person and give what we would have otherwise spent to charity.
Sounded simple enough -- until I sat down trying to decide where to send my donations.
There is no shortage of fresh catastrophes to choose from. Taken together, Hurricane Katrina, the tsunami in Asia and the earthquake that hit Pakistan, India and Afghanistan left millions homeless, orphaned and widowed without ready means of support.
Americans already have donated generously -- about $2.7 billion to provide Katrina relief; and about $1.5 billion to aid victims of the tsunami, said Daniel Borochoff, president of the American Institute of Philanthropy. But real recovery is expected to take years and billions of dollars more.
The quake that devastated Pakistan generated outsized need, but far fewer donations. Roughly 3 million people are facing a brutal winter without adequate shelter, food, clean drinking water or medical care.
Then there are the far less publicized catastrophes. Hurricane Stan in Central America left hundreds of thousands homeless. In Sudan, in what has been characterized as genocidal violence, more than 180,000 people have died since 2003 and 2 million Sudanese are now living in makeshift camps in Darfur.
And after decades of fighting between guerrillas, paramilitary groups and the government's military, Colombia now has the third highest number of internally displaced people in the world, after Sudan and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, according to Doctors Without Borders.
Poverty remains persistent across most countries. On the domestic front, 12.5 percent of the U.S. population lives below the poverty line, according to the Census Bureau. Yet donations to human services groups – for example, those providing food banks and shelters -- have declined over the past three years, Borochoff said.
At the same time, he noted, those same groups have been called on to do more than ever.
How far a few dollars go
On the bright side, if you can call it that, a small donation goes a long way.
At Church World Service, for instance, $20 can buy four blankets for those in disaster relief areas. (A full $172 can buy a shelter kit, including a family-sized tent, ground cover and blankets.)
At Alternative Gifts International (AGI), $20 can buy a month's worth of nutritional supplements for 75 Sudanese children living in the Darfur camps.
Or $44 can provide two to three month's of basic medical supplies for 100 people in a developing country. (A full $440 buys enough for 1,000 people.)
A mere $14 buys one share of an oxen ($143 the whole animal) for a poor farmer in Bolivia. Owning the animal can boost the farmer's harvest by 80 percent.
Another $15 buys one solar cooker that can be used to purify water in Kenya and Tanzania.
In the United States, for $44, a woman living in poverty who is the sole support for her family can receive a week's worth of job training, career counseling and temporary paid work. Another $15 will provide a family with food for one day, and $30 will buy them two bags of groceries.
And this barely skims the surface of possibilities.
Don't want to do the legwork?
Figuring out which charities would make the best use of your money can be a hassle. I'm certainly not eager to comb through the histories and tax records of multiple organizations.
Thankfully there are groups that do the vetting for you.
Alternative Gifts International, for example, is a one-stop donation experience. Its Web site offers information on 35 relief projects around the world. AGI hand-selects the agencies providing relief and requires them to use every dollar it receives from AGI donors on direct relief, not overhead.
As its name indicates, AGI lets you give gifts to others in the form of donations and will send out a card to your recipients with information about the project you're funding in their honor.
AGI collects 10 percent of every donation to pay for its costs. So if you donate $100, $90 will be spent on direct relief in projects you choose.
If you'd rather give to a charity directly, CharityNavigator.org can provide a quick report card on a group. And CharityWatch.org, which also rates charities, lists the best charities addressing the humanitarian needs created by Hurricane Katrina, Hurricane Stan and the earthquake in Pakistan.