in charity

Heifer International

I’ve long been a fan of Heifer International and suggested it to others as a charity, but I never read the small print. Philip Greenspun and Michael Stillwell did and both noticed their marketing is fairly misleading — you’re not really buying a water buffalo or a cow, but simply contributing to a general fund that someday may result in animals getting to families. It’s not entirely dishonest but it sure feels like something different than what their site describes when you give money.


  1. Quite recently, I was working at the Jewish National Fund. JNF is best known for planting trees in Israel. In fact, you can do so on their site by paying $18 to plant a single tree.
    Like Heifer, those $18 don’t plant a single tree in a particular forest. In fact, trees are only planted at a specific time of year (right around now), so it’s not like JNF receives your money, tallies up the total amount raised that month, say, and plants x number of trees (they actually end up planting far more than are donated).
    We oftentimes got complaints when people wanted to know where the tree they purchased 15 years ago was planted because they’re visiting Israel and want to find it. I imagine Heifer has similar issues. It’s just not cost effective to say “Matt Haughey’s heifer is in x village and fed 25 people”.
    While you may have a harder time making a personal connection, your money is being put to better use by not being assigned to a particular place right away.
    If you’re concerned that a charity is not appropriating their money properly, you can use sites like or Guidestar to find out more about the organization. A good charity uses no more than 30% of their revenue for fundraising costs.

  2. wow, that feels a little sneaky. i can see what matt is saying in his comment, but integrity (i think) would call for some plainer language regarding where your money really goes. i think most people would still be happy to donate with ‘each tree costs $18. your money could go to X or X or for X.’ or something similar. i have recommended heifer and we recently did a psa campaign on blogher sites for them. i feel bad knowing i might have led people even slightly astray in what i was saying. i suppose i should also take responsibility for not reading the fine print.

  3. Not that surprising, if you consider the basic operational problems: What if everyone that donates buys cows, but some areas need goats and rabbits more, since cows aren’t sustainable there? Obviously HI wouldn’t send cows just because people chose “cow” on the donation form, and — I hope just as obviously — there’s a chance that your “cow” donation will get rerouted for that which the recipients can best benefit from.
    Heifer Int’l knows better than donators how to use donations, but that’s a basic requirement of any legitimate charity.

  4. If you want to be more certain of where the money is going – though I agree with Rich that there’s nothing wrong with the way Heifer does things and I’ve donated to them for years now – you could also try being a microlender through
    I’m currently helping 4 businesses in Uganda, Honduras, Bulgaria and Azerbaijan.

  5. We’ve given Heifer donations as gifts to family members recently, and I very clearly remember reading the fine print and being aware that my gift wasn’t actually literally going directly to the purchase of a specific goat and some bees. The gist of the blogs you link to also appears to be that they say this on all their marketing materials, so it can’t be all that sneaky.
    rich above is completely right — if Heifer allowed individual donors to actually choose what animals they would buy (a decisons based, for most of us, on their cuteness) they would not deserve a penny of anyone’s money. I think their way of laying out what donations can accomplish in a way that people find comprehensible is a good thing, and I hope they continue it.
    As with all philanthropic giving, it’s important to understand what your money is doing, so do read the fine print, and look up the organizations online. But I’d hate to think these blogs are driving people away from Heifer. They’re good guys, and you could do a whole lot worse with your philanthropic dollar.

  6. I work for an organization that has an online gift catalog very similar to Heifer’s. In developing it, we ran focus groups around the country and this was one of the things that repeatedly came up in those groups. To solve the “problem” on both ends, we’ve made a certain number of each item available for this year, say 6000 cows. Every time someone buys a cow, it subtracts from that total and the website shows how many are still needed. Once all 6000 are purchased, you can no longer buy a cow but instead are suggested something else to buy.
    On the back end, each month we send the money raised to our field workers in the respective countries along with a list of what they need to buy with the money. They purchase the goods and distribute them to the families in need.
    So far, we’ve found it to be a good system and while we can’t show John Q. Public the exact cow he bought in Sudan, we can show proof that his money went directly to buying a cow in Sudan and show him examples of how a cow like his has made an impact.
    I share all this not to try and promote our organization (you’ll notice no mention of it anywhere here), nor to try and say we do things better than heifer or anyone else. Rather, the development of this project has been extremely insightful for me and hopefully someone else will find this interesting and/or useful, especially in light of Matt’s observation about Heifer.

  7. It never occurred to me that Heifer *was* buying a chicken with my donation; I guess I know enough about distribution and logistics to know that wouldn’t make any sense. I would assume that all organisations who offer sponsorships like this (plant a tree in Israel, CARE’s sponsor a child program, and I think World Vision has a Heifer-like project) would operate similarly. It would be kind of silly to think that the moment you press “Give” that they pull a chicken off the shelf and rush it to Ethiopia, especially if Ethiopa needs cattle more than it needs chickens.
    That said, I really like the solution that Shawn’s company has developed, and think it would be a great way for other charitable organisations to become more transparent. I like it much better than leahpeah’s “‘each tree costs $18. your money could go to X or X or for X” because market studies just don’t bear this out. The gift approach used by Heifer et al generates a much better response, which in the end is what really matters.

  8. When I was working for Free the Slaves, we had conversations addressing this very problem, Matt.
    Ultimately, we went with soliciting general donations (not earmarked for specific gifts). When FTS does offer earmarked donations, they follow the “countdown” model Shawn mentions above so that donors know exactly where their money’s going and so our partners don’t end up with too many chickens/trees/whatever.

  9. Hi,
    My brother Bob happens to live in China at the moment and followed up with Phil on his blog, and together they arranged to give an actual water buffalo to a family and document it on video.
    Bob just got done putting the story and video together and posted it on his blog:
    He’s a musician (not a video editor) and yet I think it turned out really well, and the family was extremely grateful. Take a look if you have a few minutes.
    Given the amount of time this project took, I think the suggestions about donations above are apropos. But it’s still nice to see how valuable these contributions are to those on the receiving end.

  10. Heifer doesn’t just drop an animal in someone’s backyard. They work with communities for several years. They train the farmers so they can be successful and so they can extend the gift to a neighbor. This is a huge deal. So when an animal is placed, support is given to the farmer so they can be strong enough to make a difference it their world. So it isn’t just a cow that is given. Dignity is something that you can’t put a price tag on. Heifer’s approach of passing on the gift makes it possible for many people to have the opportunity to help others (not just people who have abundant resources) Heifer Project participants in Nepal raised a small fund by pooling their “extra” rice and sold it at the market. This money was sent to Heifer projects effected by Katrina. These people knew from the bottom of their heart they could make a difference.
    Oh yeah, are you going to send money for food for the water buffalo? Heifer trains their particiants in how to feed and care for the animal long before an animal is delivered.
    What if the water buffalo gets sick? You going to have a vet visit the farmer and train them on how to care for a sick animal? You might want to think about that. And what about a fence to keep the water buffalo safe and secure? You might need to hire someone to help the farmer build a shelter not to mention buying material.

  11. Thanks,
    My point is that to do the kind of work at the kind of scale Heifer does, requires more than the initial cost of the animal. Surely people know that to have a sustainable solution where lives are changed requires time and commitment of a program not just a one off intervention. Thanks for a venue to air my thoughts.

  12. [editor’s note about full disclosure: Heifer Supporter posted comments from an internal Heifer International IP address]

  13. I contacted HI several months ago because I was concerned about the treatment of animals after they are given to those who “care” for them. They assured me that there is no neglect or cruelty; I still had my doubts and am now convinced, after reading an article in the Best Friends’ Animal Sanctuary magazine that I SHOULD be concerned. Best Friends refers to What HI does as a “salve trade for farm animals”.
    I have contacted several media sources I am closely aligned with and there will soon be an extensive investigation of HI. This is the biggest ruse to come along in a while and folks around the world will soon know exactly where their dollars are going to support the neglect and abuse of sentient, innocent animals.

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