My family and some of my friends started giving each other livestock for Christmas when I was about 16 years old. At an age when clothes and music and, yes, even books were at the top of my wish list, the gift of a young farm animal that required daily care was admittedly a tough fit at the outset. But throughout the years, I came to cherish those cows and sheep and even the occasional guinea pig, and as each holiday season neared, I found myself wondering which one I'd pick for the people who ranked as most important in my life. Would I give a goat to my stubborn grandmother? A sheep to my lamb-loving mother? A packet of tree seedlings to my botanist father? The choices were nearly infinite.

And, indeed, the livestock and plants that Heifer International doles out to families and communities each year are changing a nearly infinite number of lives. From Cameroon to Zambia to the inner cities of America and everywhere in between, Heifer is a charity that gets the job done. Instead of perpetually supplying communities with expendable finished goods, this nonprofit teaches communities across the globe how to responsibly cultivate sustainable resources -- akin to the old adage of teaching people to fish rather than simply giving them fish. And such sustainability practices are ideals I can stand firmly behind.

For my family, what makes these gifts so special is the idea that some day soon, on Christmas morning or New Year's Day or some other, less-celebrated day in the near future, a family somewhere far away from mine will receive the animals we chose and, we hope, will be changed forever by the prospects of self-sustainability. We aren't the Rockefellers, by any means, but through Heifer International, we rejoice in the knowledge that maybe we, the lowly individuals of the world, are making a difference.

But the willingness to help is only half the battle for my donation dollars. I also want to make sure the charities I give to have a sterling reputation and a solid modus operandi. And from a financial standpoint, Heifer is appealing. It devotes more than 70% of its expenses to its programs and only about 8% to administrative costs. And the nonprofit takes in more than it spends each year -- a good thing -- but not by wide margins, which is also a good sign to me when it comes to charitable giving. Ending the year in the black is marvelous, but when an organization is sitting on abundance of cash, a warning flag goes up in my mind. For what it does, the $4 million excess seems about right to me, given that Heifer has a lot more room to grow.

Really, the practice of charitable giving is just another facet of investing. While I've kept money stashed away in stocks, funds, and accounts since I was that guinea pig-giving teenager of yesteryear, I am also a proponent of investing in people, in the world, in the future. And as with the stock markets, we should do our due diligence before buying in to a particular nonprofit over another. Heifer shares my investment ideals and delivers great returns year in and year out through its model of passing on the gift. When a family's animal gives birth, its firstborn female is passed on to another family in need, thereby creating sustainability not just within a family unit, but within neighborhoods and communities. So, in essence, one animal can change the life of an entire village or town. One donation can make that happen. Talk about a multibagger!

To donate to Heifer International through The Motley Fool's annual charity drive, Foolanthropy , click here .

Hope Nelson-Pope is online coordinating editor at The Motley Fool and is a member of the Foolanthropy 2005 committee.