Each year a growing number of us are choosing to opt out of the traditional Christmas merry-go-round of excessive food, drink and commercialism to volunteer our time, goods or services to a good cause. For charities, however, the challenge is to channel our seasonal enthusiasm to satisfy a variety of immediate needs.
There are two ways of giving practical help to charities this Christmas: by donating time (and, ideally, a particular skill or expertise) or by making a donation, either in cash or kind. It is important, however, to understand what a particular charity really needs.
One of the more high profile ways of getting involved is to volunteer to help out at the growing number of seasonal shelters for the homeless. However Centrepoint, which helps the young homeless, points out it rarely takes on volunteers just for the Christmas break.
"We want to take time selecting the right volunteers to work with these young people - they must be vetted and properly trained," explains Ann Lazelle, Centrepoint's voluntary services manager. The charity will shortly open its annual Cold Weather Project, which this year will use empty space in London's Admiralty Arch, and runs 14 other hostels throughout London.
Although it relies heavily on volunteers, Centrepoint is reluctant to over-emphasise its need for help at Christmas as it also needs volunteers throughout the rest of the year.
"Whilst the cold weather is a major problem to deal with, the tourist season is also a particularly tough time for the young homeless."
With all volunteers for this Christmas now recruited, she adds: "We'd be especially pleased to hear from anyone wanting to volunteer in coming months, although after the New Year, please".
It's a similar story at Crisis which takes on over 2,000 volunteers each Christmas to help run its homeless shelters. This year, Crisis is running a main centre in Bermondsey catering for between 600 and 800 visitors each day along with a women's shelter, a shelter for alcoholics and a day centre in Deptford. Volunteers are essential and recruitment began back in September, says Crisis' volunteer co-ordinator Adam Berry.
"Although most places have been filled, additional help is always required setting up the Christmas shelters from early December and closing them down again between January 3 and 9. It may be the least glamorous part of the project but it's vital as the buildings we use are borrowed," he says.
"Volunteers fall into two camps - shift volunteers to welcome guests to the shelters and specialist volunteers providing medical services, including dentistry and chiropody. And we are always on the look out for St Johns Ambulance first aiders." There are still `vacancies' for mental health workers, out-reach helpers and resettlement advisers, he adds. Other volunteers are also needed for year-round schemes including Crisis' clothing distribution scheme and FareShare which distributes nutritional food to the homeless. Helpers are also needed to run the charity's office.
Just as important as volunteers, however, are donations of cash, gifts and practical items although it is always worth checking first what a particular charity really needs, says Centrepoint fundraiser Cathy Gale.
"The most useful donation of all to a charity is cash, although this is not necessarily the one people feel most satisfied making," she explains. "The main way people can help us is by donating new underwear, or money." Or crockery, cutlery, new toiletries - preferably in smaller sizes, quality bedding, food and cleaning materials.
The Salvation Army, which runs a network of 1,000 local `drop in' centres which will provide Christmas lunch, presents and company on Christmas Day as well as 50 hostels for the homeless is also looking for donations in kind. "We need any cash contributions towards the cost of Christmas as well as gifts and even offers of transport over the Christmas break," says publicity office Bill Cochrane.
Other charities, like Help the Aged and The Samaritans, may not run Christmas- specific support services but do work to capitalise on festive goodwill and encourage people to remember their work at other times of the year.
Christmas is the busiest time of the year for The Samaritans who report calls to their national help line rose 17 per cent during Christmas week last year. However, the charity is experiencing a decline in volunteers. "We hope Christmas is an opportunity for people to think long and hard over the Christmas break about becoming a Samaritan in the new year," Samaritans spokeswoman Emma Borton says.
Another tactic involves launching themed appeals to build up media exposure in the run up to Christmas. So, The Samaritans has joined forces with the Royal College of Psychiatrists to launch an information back on dealing with bereavement on December 18. "It's a focus for this year's Christmas fundraising," Ms Borton explains.
"We're not another Crisis, but we do take the opportunity at Christmas to communicate with our existing supporters and drum up new interest for future activities," adds Shelter's Claire Griffin. "It is extremely important to capitalise on seasonal goodwill and that New Year's resolution feeling." As well as a Christmas advertising campaign and direct marketing push, the charity is also now signing up volunteers for Shelter Week next March.
Meanwhile, Help the Aged is focusing on two main appeals - its Heating or Eating campaign to help those on low income, and its campaign to combat homelessness amongst older people.
"The emphasis is on raising awareness which at Christmas we hope will persuade people to be better neighbours and at other times of the year will build support for our network of shops and other fundraising campaigns and appeals," Help the Aged's Alyson Rose explains.
While winter provides a focus for tackling the hardship the elderly can face, other initiatives are designed to target other needs, such as negative stereotyping. Last year, Help the Aged launched the first older people's day on June 21 to celebrate the lives of the elderly.
"It's about using a time like Christmas to create a dialogue and an awareness to last all year round," she says.
It is often difficult for charities to arrange collection of donated goods.
However, a number of organisations do run networks of drop-off points where donors can take items. Alternatively, arrangements can be made to deliver goods direct to shelters or hostels.
Crisis: for drop off details and other enquiries call 0171-377 0489
Centrepoint: enquiries 0171-629 2229
The Salvation Army: contact your local centre
in the first instance, for central enquiries call 0171-236 5222
Refuge: 0171-395 7700