It's the time of year when fundraising appeals are piling up in inboxes and mailboxes all over the country. But these days, certain appeals have a different tone.
Cheeky crowdfunding sites like crowdrise.com are mixing in humor with their pitches, aiming at "people in college or people who still want to be in college," according to Robert Wolfe, the CEO. (The taunt to visitors, that "if you don't give back, no one will like you," is a case in point.)
"We want to make giving back fun. We don't want to just be a tool," Wolfe said.
At the same time, charity gift catalogs are proliferating, offering donors the opportunity to "buy" everything from a goat to a sewing machine to a herd of cows.
The idea—that people will respond better if they have a concrete idea about where their donation is going—has caught fire in recent years. For example, World Vision, a Christian anti-poverty organization, brought in $25 million from its catalog in 2008, and increased that to $33 million in 2012, according to Cheryl deBruler, coordinator of the catalog's production.
"Over the years, the gift catalog has become more and more important," she said.
(Read more: World's most big–hearted nation: the United States)
Beyond the fun and the heartstring-tugging pictures, both types of fundraising also seem to offer greater directness. What could be more straightforward than buying a llama for that little girl with the radiant smile? Or sending money to the Cure JM Foundation when your friend asks you to help her meet an online matching gift challenge?
But look more closely at your gift catalog, or your crowdfunding site, and you'll see more.
For example, World Vision promises "to honor your generosity and use your donation in the most effective way possible." In other words, while the catalog may offer the option of donating a goat or several ducks, "donations will be used to provide assistance where it is needed most within that category or to address a similar need," World Vision says.
Similarly, when Heifer International, which brings sustainable agriculture and commerce to needy communities, was started by an Indiana farmer 70 years ago, he got fellow farmers to donate heifers, and then got the animals shipped to eastern Europe and elsewhere. Pierre Ferrari, the chief executive, says it's possible to trace the genes of heifers now living in Poland and Germany back to those original donations. Over time that practice became unwieldy, and now Heifer makes clear that "donations" of goats and other livestock are symbolic.
At Crowdrise, while the donating process seems completely streamlined, the company actually takes a 3 percent cut of every contribution made on the site. "Transaction Fees cover CrowdRise's costs associated with developing, maintaining and hosting the Site, plus other value-added services," the site says.
Before you check out of crowdfunding or charity gift catalogs, though, consider this: these fundraising vehicles are remarkably effective. Your gift may not follow the straight line you imagine, or reach a charity untouched, but it may well be money that the organization would not receive otherwise.
(Read more: Charities get holiday boost from crowdfunding)