Americans like Christmas gifts that keep on giving. That's why many people are choosing farm animals as gifts. Each year around the holidays, thousands of Americans donate money to the U.S.-based charitable organization known as Heifer International, which supplies livestock to impoverished families in more than 50 countries.

One of the great challenges for Americans shopping for holiday presents is to find a gift which is not just another trinket, but that's unique and meaningful. Heifer International spokesman Ray White says his group has the perfect alternative gift idea.

"It's a way of honoring someone who doesn't need another sweater or holiday gift they're used to getting, that they're going to take back or may throw in a drawer," he says. "We give the person who places that order an honor card, and they send that to the recipient [in the United States, a card] which says, 'We bought a goat in your honor, or whatever.' It explains how Heifer works and what Heifer does.

Each year, such donations to Heifer International, a charity based in Little Rock, Arkansas, support the gift of some 400,000 farm animals to more than 500,000 families in more than 51 countries. Mr. White says the organization has an ambitious goal.

"Heifer's main mission is to end hunger and poverty around the world. And the work is through livestock development, primarily," he explains. "We've done that for 60 years. You hear people say, 'Give a man a fish, he'll eat for a day. Teach a man to fish, and he'll eat for a lifetime.' That's really the principle that underlies Heifer."

An American farmer named Dan West first put that principle into action in the years before and during World War II, shipping boatloads of farm animals overseas. Initially, says Ray White, the shipment was heifer cows.

"It's kind of amazing. These are a bunch of farmers. They're thinking, 'What would be the best kind of cow we could send? Well, we should send a bred heifer,'" he says. "A heifer is a cow that's never had a calf. A bred heifer is a cow that's going to have a calf. And so when the cow would arrive, it would immediately give birth and begin to give milk. So that was an immediate success."

The first boatload of heifer cows landed in Puerto Rico in 1944. Later, Heifer International located and supplied livestock available locally in needy countries. Today, a donation in the United States can pay for the gift of up to 30 different kinds of animals -- from flocks of chicks to goats, bees, horses, sheep, even ostriches.

Ray White says the donated livestock, unlike a one-time handout of food or financial aid, create the potential for a villager's sustainable income -- providing milk, wool, and other byproducts. And, of course, the animals reproduce. "We can see a multiplier effect at work in every project," he says, "with animals producing more and more offspring, with more and more income and spreading out the benefits throughout the community. Helping someone have success with a single dairy animal or a wool-producing sheep or a lama that's helping, that helps people get better lives."

Mr. White adds that Heifer programs reinforce community values. Recipients of the animals sign a contract with local Heifer representatives to pass on the offspring to their neighbors.

Peter Golugwa, a Heifer representative in Tanzania, says the group's livestock gifts have changed the lives of many people there. "People here are so poor. And now they have lifted up their lives," he says. "They have sent their children to school, built better houses. It's a very good and wonderful time."

An important part of the Heifer program is ensuring that the benefits of the livestock donations spread to the recipient's community. Spokesman Ray White witnessed the passing of the gift ceremony in Kisinga, Uganda. "This [ceremony] involved 14 villagers, who had raised their baby goats to where they were adult, dairy goats, ready to be passed onto their neighbors," he recalls. "The owner of the goat would proudly march it out and hand it over to the neighbor. They would hug and people would clap and applaud. It was very moving. They've got the spirit of helping their neighbors and doing this altogether in community."

Mr. White recalls another example of how a gift benefited a community in the western Chinese city of Cheng Du involved a man who is now known as "the Rabbit King." "He got a pair of breeding rabbits from Heifer and turned it into a business. He's actually supplying rabbits to restaurants," Mr. White says. "He has trained thousands of people to raise rabbits and given away thousands of rabbits and he's taken 'passing on the gift' way beyond our requirements to really helping the industry around Cheng Du that raises rabbits get better, growing high-production, high-quality rabbits for meat and for fur."

Heifer International spokesman Ray White says many Americans are not aware that a relatively small donation -- from $20 to several hundred dollars -- can pay for the supply and distribution of animals, and that this donation can make such a difference in so many people's lives.

"Donors are pretty skeptical," he says. "They hear the numbers -- 800 million people around the world who are malnourished. That's a very daunting number. When they get that idea that they can be responsible for changing lives, we really see them become excited and happy about this."

Heifer calls its American donors Friends of the Ark. The reference to an ark comes from the Bible story about a giant ship, which saved all the world's animals and the human race from an apocalyptic flood. Last year, Friends of the Ark donated $80 million to Heifer -- passing on the gift of an animal to help ward off the apocalypse of world hunger.