One year Teri Bunker was looking for a way to add meaning to her family's Christmas. Her solution came in the form of an email.

Her voice filled with emotion as she recounted the story that inspired their family tradition: every year for Christmas a woman would perform an act of service on behalf of her husband and then place an envelope containing the details of her service in their tree as a gift to him. The husband eventually died of cancer and the Christmas following his death she found four envelopes in the tree, one from each of their kids, for their father.

Bunker related this story to her children and gave them the charge to perform an act of service that year. When Christmas rolled around, they would share what they had done. Over the years this tradition has become a highlight of the Bunker family's Christmas celebration.

"One of the important aspects of this is we never did a family project because I really wanted the children to look outside themselves and be aware of needs," Bunker said.

Services rendered ranged from befriending a foreign exchange student to leaving someone secret notes. One son's family bought lunch bags and filled them with water bottles, granola bars and other snacks and kept them in their car. When they would drive past a homeless person they would have their children run out to give them a bag. These acts of service were in line with Bunker's goal to help her children see the little ways in which they could serve.

"I have pretty amazing children and it's just made them more service oriented and more aware of those around them," Bunker said.

The Bunkers are part of the growing trend of Americans who choose to give back in small but meaningful ways over the Christmas holiday. While a recent survey done by American Research Group, Inc., showed spending plans for Americans are down 2 percent from last year, service-based organizations have reported seeing more people interested in using some of their Christmas budget or time off to give. One possible reason for this shift in giving may be the recent recession,

"I think that the tough economy has reminded many of us that life can be tough and that people know people -- who are good people -- who struggle," said

Bill Hulterstrom, CEO and President of United Way of Utah County.

Hulterstrom said he has seen an increase in the number of people who not only want to serve, but serve in ways that last beyond Christmas morning.

United Way of Utah County has been coordinating sub for santa for 29 years. One of their goals has been to help donors focus on helping individuals and families in substantial ways. For instance, giving school clothes or toys with an educational slant or helping provide the necessities of life for a family, rather than just dropping gifts on a doorstep on Christmas Eve.

"We fine-tune their passion ever so slightly and make it better for the family they're helping," Hulterstrom said. "I think that's a maturing of giving."

According to Hulterstrom, this past year United Way of Utah County has helped 5077 children, in addition to providing Christmas to 150 children in the juvenile detention center and helping people in the state hospital. Six hundred and seventy groups and individuals have signed up to help, and scores of volunteers have come to deliver and organize.

"This is no small effort," Hulterstrom said.

United Way of Utah County's focus on sustainable giving is an idea that is catching on in other organizations as well. Companies like Hiefer International, where gifted livestock will help support a family, or Kiva, where a 25 dollar interest-free loan can go a long way toward helping those with big ideas and little opportunity to accomplish their goals.

At Kiva, the goal is to create sustainable giving, according to Beth Kuenstler, Kiva's vice president of marketing and communications. People can -- either themselves or with a gift card -- loan money to someone who has a business plan and ability but no opportunity. With a 98.92 percent return rate, Kiva provides a low-cost opportunity for families to give in a meaningful way.

"It teaches philanthropy at a yound age so children learn to look outside of them at a broader world," Kuenstler said. "It's not about a handout. It's about a hand up."

Unique to Kiva is the way it allows families to give in a way that is familiar to kids. These tech-savvy kids can go online with their parents and select a borrower who meets their interests.

"We like to say that anyone with a credit card, a computer and $25 can give a loan through Kiva," Kuenstler said. "We try to make it as easy as possible and as meaningful as possible so you can find a borrower."

One family presented Kiva to their daughter in a way that was easy for her to understand. Mary Lynn Hallinger asked her then-teen daughter to postpone her habit of buying fancy coffee while the $25 loan was repaid. Once her daughter realized that this small sacrifice on her part meant providing a means of livelihood for someone else, she signed on. This family is now nearing their 100th loan,

In line with giving trends, the annual loan volume through Kiva for 2011 is projected to be $86.9 million, nearly a 22 percent increase from the $71.3 million loaned in 2010.

For those who still want to give and have little or nothing to spare, Volunteers of America, Utah, allows donations of lightly-used clothing and has those who offer their services for tutoring and other services rendered in kind. Zach Bale, vice president of external relations for Volunteers of America, Utah, said many of the monetary donations they receive are no more than $5 or $10.

"Every little bit helps. It all adds up," Bale said.

VOA works in conjunction with the homeless shelter to act as a bridge to the shelter for homeless adults and has a youth drop-in center that is often the main resource for homeless youth. Currently the drop-in center is providing the homeless youth with backpacks filled with items like candy, socks and giftcards. They are hoping to give out 200 backpacks this year, compared to the 100 provided last year.

The Bunker family also found ways to give through their annual traditon. Bunker said those who do not have money can give by holding open a door for someone, helping carry a person's bags. Even something as little as making eye contact with people can make a big difference.

One year one of Bunker's sons fit the description of wanting to give but having few resources. He had run into financial difficulties and moved into his parent's home with his family. He had been searching for a service project when he heard through a friend at work that they could find a family on and give Christmas to them. He and his wife called some of the families they had found on the website and selected those who they felt were truly in need. For instance, they found one woman who embarrassedly admitted that she just wanted some deoderant. He and his wife cleaned out their closets and toy boxes and with their lightly-used clothes and toys and a few inexpensive purchases, provided Christmas for two families.

"It just really made them aware of how blessed they were even though they didn't have much," Bunker said.