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Charities: The message Gemma brings to Christmas

It is the time of year when appeals for our cash - in the name of charity - reach their peak. How is the money raised, and where does it go? Sally Staples investigates.

The postman's bag is heavier than usual - and not just with presents and Christmas cards. It is the prime time for charity appeals and hundreds of thousands of households are targeted. In the run-up to the festive season most of us will be deluged with dozens of unsolicited letters asking for donations.

Many of these will go straight into the bin but charities depend on those of us who, imbued with the festive spirit of generosity and goodwill, do actually respond to the request and reach for the credit card.

Charities dealing with children will detail particularly poignant cases of need - a proven way to tug the heartstrings and reel in the cheques. The NSPCC raised pounds 46.2m last year and a third of that figure came through donations during November, Dec- ember and January.

This year the charity has Christmas catalogue inserts in two national newspapers and is running a television advertising campaign which aims to attract 100,000 donations.

Christmas mailshots are geared to attracting 25,000 new donors.

Scope, the former Spastics Society, finds that featuring a child's story in their Christmas mailshot is effective. This year the appeal is focused on Gemma, born prematurely and weighing just two pounds. The story is emotive. The reader will discover that "when Gemma was two days old she actually died but the doctors managed to bring her back to life".

Gemma was in intensive care for many months. Her mother will never forget the pain her tiny baby went through - so many tubes and needles.

"But the heartache did not stop there. As Gemma grew up it became clear she was profoundly disabled from the waist down. When other children were learning to walk, she still could not sit up or roll over. That's when her parents were told she had cerebral palsy, caused at or around the time of her birth."

Scope has paid for Gemma to attend a specialist school where her progress has been immense.

The thrust of the appeal is this: "In the four weeks leading up to Christmas, more than 100 babies will be born with cerebral palsy - that's one new baby every six hours. Scope wants to reach out to all of them but we can't. We only have the funds to help 25 of these 100 children."

If the reader knows a disabled child or someone who is pregnant or is even pregnant herself an appeal like this is hard to resist.

Scope pushes the point home harder by including a cut out angel to display on the top of your Christmas tree as a "reminder of all those with disabilities especially children".

Appeals manager Sue Greenwood says the biggest response to mailshots comes at Christmas and Scope hopes to raise pounds 500,000 from its seasonal appeal with a further pounds 250,000 in a follow-up appeal in January.

"We have about seven mailshots a year but we try not to deluge our supporters with requests. If they let us know they would like to give annually or twice a year we can adapt our mailing list according to their wishes. A total of 80 per cent of our income goes directly to cerebral palsy sufferers leaving 20 per cent to cover all our administration."

Christmas cards are a huge earner for charities. Last year the imperial Cancer Research Fund sold 6.22 million cards through their 500 shops excluding cards sold through catalogues. Income from cards exceeded pounds l.5m.

This year, in addition to the usual channels of fund-raising they are planning two major events. One is a ticket-only carol concert on 9 December at Glasgow Cathedral in the presence of HRH Princess Alexandra where readings will be given by Kate Adie, Hannah Gordon and Magnus Linklater. It is hoped the concert will raise pounds 45,000.

The other Christmas event is more accessible to the public and is called Mince Pie Mania. A spokesman for the ICRF said Granada's Good Morning and Brian Turner of Ready, Steady Cook would be supporting the aim to get people baking and selling mince pies for the charity.

Oxfam says it aims to emphasise the importance of regular year-round donations but admits that the response at Christmas is always particularly generous.

Spokesman Charles Walker said Christmas mailshots would mostly be targeted at committed givers. As with the Imperial Cancer Research Fund, Oxfam Christmas cards are huge sellers. Last year cards raised more than pounds 1m which covered Oxfam's cost of one year's work in Ethiopia.

"This year we are trying to encourage people to bring in their second- hand goods to our shops and to buy some of our products made in the third world," said Mr Walker.

"The slogan is `Bring the past. Buy the present.' We are selling a lot of textile and ceramic products made by people in poor countries and they are great presents.

"It is also a good time for people to volunteer to work in our shops as we are so busy. Just doing four hours a week - especially a Saturday afternoon shift - can be a real contribution."

Oxfam says that donors who give cash can expect 82 per cent of their money to go towards relief and development while the remainder is split between the cost of campaigns, fund-raising and administration.

Help The Aged is using two mailshots this Christmas to illustrate different problems: one is about homeless people and includes a piece of newspaper as a reminder that someone somewhere will be using newspaper for their bed tonight.

The other focuses on heating and eating, pointing out that there are many old people who may have to make a choice about whether to be warm and hungry or cold and nourished.

Spokeswoman Alison Rose says people seem to be more aware of homelessness at Christmas and respond generously at this time of year.

For an information pack on Mince Pie Mania and details of Brian Turner's recipe for healthy mince pies, telephone 0171-269-3412.