Heifer International

Grade Level: 
6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12
Global Issues
World hunger
Heifer International, founded in 1944, is a unique non-profit organization founded on the basic principal that we should help the hungry by giving a source of food, rather than just the food alone. The foundation has assisted seven million people from more than one hundred twenty-five countries across the world. Heifer’s mission includes working with communities around the world to end hunger and poverty and to care for the earth.


Heifer International, founded in 1944, is a unique non-profit organization founded on the basic principal that we should help the hungry by giving a source of food, rather than just the food alone.  Since its conception, Heifer International has assisted seven million people from more than one hundred twenty-five countries across the world.  Heifer’s mission includes working with communities around the world to end hunger and poverty and to care for the earth (Heifer International (4)).

This global organization differs from that of other global relief organizations because of its long-term approach.  First the family receives livestock such as cows, goats, water buffalo and other material goods.  Next they are trained and educated and lastly they focus on the idea of passing on the gift.  This concept of “passing on the gift” means that some form of the animal (whether it be eggs, milk, wool or offspring) gets passed on to others in need so that the cycle may continue and build sustainable communities.  This also helps to instill a sense of pride and dignity within these communities (ibid.).

Historic Roots

Dan West, a farmer from Indiana, was working as a Church of the Brethren volunteer during the Spanish Civil War in 1937.  As he was dolling out ladles of milk to poor refugees from both sides of the war, he realized that the supply of milk was going to eventually run dry.  West got the idea of giving the poor the source of nourishment rather than just a temporary fix.  In addition, it was important that the gift was passed on to other families to encourage that the gift would keep on giving (ibid.).

When West returned home, he founded the organization called “Heifers for Relief.”  In 1944, the first shipment of 17 Heifer cows went to Puerto Rico from York, Pennsylvania.  This was the beginning of West’s quest to end world hunger.  Once World War II had ended, Heifer continued by aiding farmers in the war-torn European countries who had lost their livestock in the fighting.  Thousands of dairy goats were sent to Japan in 1947 and then later in 1948, a shipment of pigs went to Ecuador (ibid.).

Since its inception, Heifer has evolved into more than just livestock programs.  They are currently working on several different worldly initiatives.  A few of these programs include “Peace Initiatives” where peace projects are happening in places like Afghanistan, Kosovo, North Korea and Guatemala.  The Gender Equity Initiative was formed to ensure that women are equal partners in projects.  The Agroecology Initiative was founded to help educate people on the importance of taking care of the land, water and other natural resources of the communities.  Other initiatives include Disaster Rehabilitation, HIV-Aids, Microenterprise and Urban Agriculture (ibid.).


From 2000-2002, it is estimated that 852 million people worldwide experienced chronic hunger.  “The vast majority -- 815 million people -- are found in the developing world. Some 28 million are in Eastern Europe and the countries of the former Soviet Union”  (Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations).

Heifer International is a unique non-profit because it is not just a temporary relief to an on-going problem.  West, the founder, believed in the importance of educating the beneficiary of the gift.  Therefore, once an animal is purchased, the beneficiaries are taught farming and animal husbandry.  They are taught how to care for their environment so that their animal and future offspring can continue to live off the land and be productive for their owners.  In addition, the promise by all the recipient families to “pass on the gift” is crucial in the development of sustainable communities (Northrup 2003).

Heifer is also important because it promotes dignity and self-esteem to its beneficiaries.  When families receive a Heifer animal, they agree to pass on the gift.  When they pass on the gift of offspring to another family, they also help educate that family on how to care for the animal.  Therefore, those families which were once the recipients of a gift, can now feel good because they have become donors and are able to help others (Heifer International (3)).

Thanks to the media, Heifer International has become increasingly popular.  The organization has won many different awards including one of the top ten charitable organizations on the Gold Star List of Forbes magazine, the Cause Marketing Halo Award for the “Best Environmental/Wildlife Campaign” and the 2004 Hilton Humanitarian Prize, to name a few (Heifer International (6)).

“This simple idea of giving families a source of food rather than short-term relief caught on and has continued for almost 60 years. As a result, millions of families in 115 countries are experiencing better health, more income and the joy of helping others” (Heifer International (4)).

Ties to the Philanthropic Sector

Heifer International is at the heart of philanthropy.  It encourages people to help rid the world of hunger and poverty by asking them to donate their treasure.  This has been a great marketing tool.  The organization has devised a variety of fundraising vehicles among several different target groups.  In 2004, contributions and revenue totaled nearly $70 million (Heifer International (2)).

Depending on how much is donated, donators are actually given the choice to buy some type of animal such as heifer cows, goats, chickens and water buffalos, to name a few.  Gift catalogs include success stories of communities that are thriving because of Heifer’s help.  Even celebrities like Susan Sarandon and Oprah Winfrey have spoken out on behalf of Heifer International encouraging people to give the gift of a cow or goat at Christmas instead of fulfilling unnecessary wants with material items (Oprah Winfrey 2002).

Heifer has formed an extensive school program called “Read to Feed.”  This program encourages schools to carry out a school-wide Read-a-thon by gathering pledges from supporters.  If schools wish to participate, they simply fill out some information on the website and Heifer will send all materials, including introductory children’s video and book, Beatrice’s Goat, a true story of a Heifer goat given to a family in Uganda (McBrier 2001).

Just a few of Heifer International’s business partners include 20th Century Fox, Dakota Beef, Green Mountain Coffee Roasters, Organic Bouquet, and Scholastic.  Business partners support the organization through monetary and in-kind donations, as well as through employee matching programs (Heifer International (5)).

Heifer International encourages grassroots groups to become involved including civic groups; fraternity, sorority or college student groups; youth groups; and
neighborhood associations (ibid.)

Also, the organization urges the faith-based community to engage in giving through several programs including: Animal Crackers, church education curriculum for ages 3-adult; Fill the Ark, with a “bank" and daily giving calendar; and Living Gift Market, which offers shopping opportunities for friends and family in an effort to fight world hunger (ibid.)

Throughout the world, thousands of people have benefited from the gifts and education that Heifer International has provided.  Because of their philosophy of “passing on the gift,” thousands and possibly millions more will be affected in the future (ibid.)

Key Related Ideas

Agroecology is the practice of raising animals in harmony with nature and taking steps to restore a balanced ecology.
“Not a cup, but a cow” is idea was the backbone behind Dan West’s creation of Heifer International. 

“Passing on the gift” asks that the family that takes on a Heifer animal agrees to share their animal’s offspring with other needy families.  In addition, this phrase also means that people will share their knowledge, resources and skills.

Sustainable community is a community that is healthy and will continue to grow and prosper and provide for its inhabitants.

Important People Related to the Topic

  • Dan West:  West founded Heifer International in 1944.  After working as a relief worker pouring milk for starving people in Spain after the Spanish Civil War, West had come up with an idea:  why not give the hungry the source of food ~ “not a cup, but a cow.”
  • Jo Luck: Luck is the current Chief Executive Officer of Heifer International.
  • Beatrice Biira:  Biira is a young woman from Uganda, Africa who was the heroine of the best-selling book, Beatrice’s Goat.  This book told the true story of the goat that was given to Beatrice’s family from Heifer International.  This goat not only provided milk which in turn provided nourishment and money but also offspring, which was given to other families to “pass on the gift.”

Related Nonprofit Organizations

  • Bothar, an Irish charity founded in 1991, provides cows, goats and financial support to Heifer's projects in Africa and Eastern Europe (https://www.bothar.ie/).
  • Send a Cow, an British charity founded in 1988, helps fund Heifer's projects in Africa (https://sendacow.org/).
  • Heifer Foundation was established in 1990 by Heifer International to build an endowment that would generate ongoing support for Heifer International (https://myheiferfoundationgiving.org/).
  • Heifer Netherlands, founded in 1998, supports Heifer's programs in Eastern Europe and Africa, Heifer Netherlands raises money from European foundations, companies and individuals (https://www.heifer.nl/).
  • Heifer Hong Kong, formed in 2000, raises funds in Asia for Heifer's projects in China (https://www.heiferhk.org/).


Bibliography and Internet Sources

  • Christiane Northrup, M.D. (2003).  Empowering Women’s Wisdom.  Women Working Together to End Hunger and Poverty — Heifer International’s Approach to Building Sustainable Communities.  https://www.drnorthrup.com/charitable-orgs_heifer.php.
  • Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.  The numbers: SOFI 2004 hunger statistics. http://www.fao.org/newsroom/en/focus/
  • 2004/51786/article_51791en.html.
  • Heifer International (1).  Ending World Hunger through Charitable Giving. 
  • McBrier, Page.  Beatrice’s Goat.  New York: Athenaeum, 2001.  ISBN: 0689824602.


This paper was developed by a student taking a Philanthropic Studies course taught at Ferris State University - Grand Rapids Campus. It is offered by Learning To Give and Ferris State University - Grand Rapids Campus.