Many people mention having family far away, and I'm in the same boat. I'm so fortunate to have my sister, brother-in-law, and many family-tight-friends (not related by blood but bound by love) in San Francisco. But my folks are in Georgia and the rest of our extended family lives in Missouri.
It's tough to send your love across thousands of miles. I usually want to send something that I've touched. Something that my mom can hold. Something that my dad might look at during the day, causing him to think of me and the special bond between us. But geeze, they have enough stuff. I do often find a piece of jewelery for Mom, but if I can't find something small to send, I make sure to send a handwritten letter for them to read.
My dad actually introduced me to donating in the name of a loved one. He donates to the Arbor Day Foundation and Heifer International. I like the Arbor Day Foundation. I've done Heifer, but find that they really send me toooooooo much paper mail for me to ever use them again. In her comment, Kamala pointed out Seva.org. I've never used that one, but it looks pretty cool. Heath, my brother-in-law, donated to Kiva.org for me. That was really cool. Kiva provides micro-loans to small businesses in the developing world. I think that's awesome.
In the past I've also donated to local organizations like PAWS, (Pets Are Wonderful Support helps people with low incomes and disabling diseases to care for their animals) which is still my favorite animal related organization. You could also donate to a local park. In San Francisco I guess one would donate to the Parks Trust.
Donations can be a great route for families. Just sitting around talking about how you'd like to donate can teach you about each other's values and provide a reason to get together or talk on the phone. My family is very large and there's a bit of an argument every year about Christmas. Seriously, the family is huge, so we don't try to exchange with everyone. There's a name exchange instead. Many of us do not participate in that anymore. Because I live so far away, and have never lived in Missouri, there's a good chance that some poor cousin will get my name and have zero idea what $15, easy-to-ship mall item would suit me (the answer is none, of course). And many of us would love to see the Christmas exchange turn into the Christmas donation. But the forces of consumerism hold us back. Parents and grandparents with young children have thus refused to allow this change in holiday dynamic. I don't even think the argument took place this year because the fall-out was so bad in the past 2 years that we're too afraid to battle the gift.
I don't think this obsession with gifts has much to do with greed. And I know that there is thought and care put into the selection of some of the gifts. For example, my aunt made me 3 pillows one year as my gift. They were all different shapes to help me take care of my ever-injured knees and elbows. I think the gift obsession might have something to do with marketing. I don't know. I do know that my family is devoutly Christian, and really worried about Jesus being taken out of Christmas. I guess I find it contradictory that we haven't been able to establish either a donation or service oriented Christmas because gifts have become such an expectation with Christmas. I saw "What Would Jesus Buy" last week, and I thought about my family a lot while watching it. I mentioned to some folks that I was going to see it, and it seems like it would be a good impetus for talking about gifts at Christmas. But I don't think I'm going to go there. For those of us who don't like a "thing" based Christmas, we're allowed to opt out, just not to express our discontent.