One evening while sitting at home, I decided to watch Frontline - the PBS newsmagazine. In between a story on Myanmar and something else, they did a profile on a group called Kiva, a San Francisco based company that funds microloans through donations.
Essentially it works this way: would-be entrepreneurs in mostly third-world countries submit proposals (there are usually locally-based organizations that help and decide who applies in some cases). The project is then posted on the web site:
Then, potential doners worldwide can contribute a small sum (or a large one!) to the business owner. The site describes the business, what the money will be used for, and how long the estimated time of repayment is.
As of the filming of the Frontline episode last month, no one has defaulted on their loans.
This holiday season, instead of buying someone a trivial gift, why don't you try donating to a small business owner somewhere in the world and put it in your friend's name. What better way to spread the love?