Shopping: Charity begins in the post

Jenny McClean on how Christmas cards are vital money raisers

The Royal Mail and Christmas card manufacturers predict that we will be sending more seasonal greetings this year than ever before. And an ever larger proportion of them will be charity cards. But how much of the average pounds 2.50 to pounds 5 for a packet of 10 goes to the charities?

The Charity Christmas Card Council, known as 4C, is reputedly the largest and oldest umbrella charity card sales organisation in Britain. Set up in 1970, it now has a membership of more than 100 registered charities as diverse as the Worldwide Fund for Nature and the National Asthma Campaign. Non-profit retaining, 4C returns 17 to 45 per cent of the VAT-exclusive retail price to members.

Costs are kept down by free seasonal loans of vacant premises staffed by volunteers, says 4C spokesman Neville Bass. "But now the retail market is booming, these temporarily vacant sites are much harder to find. We have had to pull out altogether in Belfast - because of the economic recovery, not the political situation."

When it comes to Christmas cards, tradition wins hands down. Mr Bass has noticed no significant change in content or design over the years. "But shoppers are becoming more discerning and want quality materials. Christmas cards are no longer price sensitive as they were during the recession. And we send feedback to our members: a lot of research is going into what customers want."

There are signs, too, of the caring Nineties. "Over the past decade," says Mr Bass, "companies have been making a point of sending cards that are more ethically oriented and which have a more international flavour. They see it as an investment."

Altruism or a shrewd business move, the main thing is that charities are benefiting. Susan Burton, who administers card sales for The National Autistic Society through 4C and Cards for Good Causes with a return of 35 to 55 per cent, reports a strong rise in corporate business and generously points out that some companies have always been charity-conscious. "Christmas cards are extremely important to us - they not only make money but generate publicity." Something that is hard to put a price on.

Charities benefit considerably more if we buy direct from them or a non- profit retaining agent rather than from high-street retailers who slap on an average 100 per cent mark-up. But Claire Jarvis, speaking for Oxfam, pointed out that most charities are pragmatic about this commercialism. "It's not realistic to expect retailers to sell at no profit. We may only get 10p in the pound but it's l0p we would not otherwise have got. And having other outlets increases public awareness."

By comparison, of each pound spent on cards from one of Oxfam's own shops 17.5p goes in VAT, 30p in production costs and 55p to the charity's funds. Last year Oxfam Trading sold pounds 4.75m worth of cards with a gross profit of pounds 2.25m.

Some stores offer their own brand charity cards. Boots the Chemists, 40 per cent of whose range carries a charity contribution, are supporting the RNIB this year, though still only 10p in the pound goes to the charity. However, cards can raise funds a second time around through the recycling bins available in 1,300 of the company's stores during January and February. Money raised from recycled cards will go towards planting community forests.

The card industry is an important money-spinner and provides jobs, too, but if you really want to control where your money goes, revamp last year's used stock with some stiff card and glue or spend a creative afternoon with your children designing your own, then send the money saved direct to your favourite good cause. Blue Peter would be proud of you.

Charities Advisory Trust (0171-794 9835)

4C (0171-336 7580)

Cards for Good Causes (01962 862272)

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