12/19/2012 05:06 EST | Updated 02/17/2013 05:12 EST

This Season, It's Worth Remembering How Much One Gift Can Accomplish

I read recently about an interesting initiative based in the United States called Giving Tuesday. Timed to follow Black Friday and Cyber Monday, America's two most consumer-driven shopping days before the holidays, Giving Tuesday is designed to transform the way people participate in the giving season, including considerations for gifts that can help people in less fortunate situations.

While "Giving Tuesday" hasn't fully migrated north to Canada, the idea behind it is appealing. With all the ads and other reminders to shop and give at this time of year, I think it's worth stepping back for a moment to consider how and why we give and also the far-reaching results certain gifts can generate.

Plan Canada is one among a number of charitable organizations that offer people ways to give gifts that go further in impact than a sweater, bottle of wine, or video game might. It's fair to say these are great gifts to receive, but when that bottle of wine is done -- it's done. What if your gift could do more? What if there were ways to sustain the positive effects of that gift not only in your life but also in someone else's?

Often called "ethical" or "socially-conscious" gifts, there are many online and virtual giving options that people can use to honour their friends and loved ones here at home while delivering lasting change in the lives of children and families in other parts of the world. The one I know best is Plan Canada's Gifts of Hope.

Whether they are gifts that meet immediate and basic needs -- like providing people with food, water, and shelter after a devastating flood -- or gifts with more long-term effects -- like supporting children's education, protecting human rights, or supporting people's livelihoods (or ways to earn income) -- these gifts have transformative impacts.

Take the gift of a mango tree, for example. We've seen how giving one of these trees to a classroom of school children provides them with a powerful incentive to come to school, nutrients (mangos are rich in Vitamins A and C), and also helps them learn how to make things grow. The children then take that agricultural knowledge back to their communities.

Or consider the gift of a goat, one of Plan's more popular gift items. People like being able to say they gave someone a goat and even find the idea kind of quirky and interesting. These animals are certainly comical and cute to look at while visiting the local petting zoo, but to poorer families in developing countries the gift of goats can mean so much more than this -- like the start of a business. Goats, and more specifically goat farms, can provide families with opportunities to build and sustain an income. They are also an important source of protein and nourishment.

And let's not forget the impact these gifts can have in the lives of the givers themselves.

Some people use Gifts of Hope and other virtual giving options as a way to teach their children and friends about issues and challenges faced by other people in the world, and as a way to engage their loved ones in creating positive social change. Other Plan supporters, like London, Ontario's Ariana and Ali Nabavieh, find their own special meaning in the gifts they choose.

For Ariana and Ali, the reason for giving was deeply personal. Their first child, Mylo, was born with a congenital heart defect that required him to have two open heart surgeries before he was seven months old. Mylo was born in Canada and was fortunate enough to receive all the care he needed to survive -- he's just under two years old today -- but his parents have never lost sight of how different their story could have turned out had Mylo been born in another place where critical and urgent health care isn't as available, accessible or affordable.

Knowing how important it was to them that other babies, no matter where they are born, be given the chance to survive, the Nabaviehs decided to give a gift in support of a maternal health clinic in Tanzania. This clinic will help to save the lives of hundreds of babies each year. It means a lot to this family that their own challenges became a catalyst for change in other people's lives.

Not every gift we give or receive results from a profoundly life-changing experience, but some gifts can have the effect of changing a life profoundly. Whatever our reasons for giving and whatever we choose to give, that's something worth remembering.