For many people, Christmas and charity are inextricably linked, but writing a large cheque is not the only way to support good causes at this time of year. There are all sorts of festive ways to do your bit - and some of them will cost you nothing.
Buying Christmas cards where the profits made are donated to charity is an easy way to support good causes over the festive season. But take great care with the cards you buy. A spokesman for the Charities Advisory Trust (CAT) warns: "The amount going to help the charitable causes varies enormously depending on the card you buy."
The CAT has been running its Christmas Card Awards for five years and the initiative has had some success in encouraging retailers to be more generous. John Lewis and WH Smith, for example, have raised the proportion of revenue from charity cards that they hand over to good causes.
Even so, there are still some villains. "Harrods has cynically expanded its range of charity cards nearly five-fold, at no cost to itself," the CAT says. "This expanded range seems a brazen attempt to cash in on the public's goodwill at no extra cost to Harrods."
In the worst cases, Harrods offers cards where just 3 per cent of the price goes to charity - the average donation from the store is just 6 per cent. Cards Galore, the card retailer, is not much better - its average donation is 7.4 per cent. The meanest card of them all is from Liberty, which pays 2.9 per cent to the Meningitis Trust.
Don't assume the charities themselves are blameless.
The CAT points out that some charities have not negotiated hard enough. The RSPCA gets 25 per cent from John Lewis, but just 5.7 per cent from Harrods. The CAT says the best way to support charities through generous cards is to purchase them from the Card Aid sections set up within many charity shops (you can also buy online at www.cardaid.co.uk). The CAT's own site ( www.charitiesadvisorytrust.org.uk) also includes a list of cards that donate 60 per cent or more of sales proceeds to charities.
Ethical giving has become big business in the UK over the past five years, with more and more people buying anything from a goat for an African village to equipment for football teams in Latin American.
This year, however, there has been some criticism of parts of the ethical-giving sector. There have been concerns, for example, about the amount of money that actually ends up with your chosen good cause, as well as anxieties about whether certain gifts are as ethical as they first sound.
That's no reason to give up on ethical Christmas presents, but at least think carefully about the gift you buy. Alternatively, the website Intelligent Giving, set up to promote informed support for charities, has published the Christmas Gift Awards 2006 (see www.intelligentgiving.com).
It has chosen several ethical gift providers, as well as individual presents, on the basis of where the money goes and the imagination shown by providers.
Top of the list is the Good Gifts Catalogue, one of the original promoters of ethical presents, but Intelligent Giving also promotes a range of other providers. The site is particularly keen on providers that deliver exactly what you're buying. Some charities, Intelligent Giving points out, only guarantee that your money - or more often 90 per cent of your money - will be used to support a related project. For instance, Oxfam offers alpaca goats, but the small print reveals your money can be used to support any scheme designed to help people make a living.
Some people may be happy with this approach, says Adam Rothwell, an Intelligent Giving researcher, but others may not. "The best websites display their policy in big letters next to every gift they advertise, making the whole process clear," he says. "Lesser ones tuck the information out of sight and for the worst offenders, you'll have to give them a ring to find out what you're really buying."
Many people choose simply to make one-off donations to charity at Christmas. If that's what you're doing, there's no excuse for not claiming Gift Aid. This generous tax break is the simplest thing in the world for taxpayers to sort out and substantially boosts the value of gifts you make.
As long as you're a taxpayer, you can claim Gift Aid on any donation you make to a registered charity. You simply need to provide a declaration - you can do it in writing, online or over the phone - giving your name and address and confirming that you're a taxpayer.
In return, the charity gets basic-rate tax relief on your gift; every £1 is treated as if it has already had tax deducted from it. Once the charity claims back the money, each £1 is therefore worth £1.28. Higher-rate taxpayers can even claim back the difference between the basic and higher rates of tax - presently 18 per cent - on their returns. In other words, a higher-rate taxpayer who gives £100 to charity will pay just £82. And the gift will be worth £128 to the good cause.
GIVE YOUR SHARES AWAY
Tax breaks are also available on gifts of shares you make to charity, including holdings in collective investment schemes such as unit and investment trusts. You get tax relief at your highest marginal rate of income tax on such gifts - you will need to claim on your tax return - so shares worth £1,000 to a charity would cost a higher-rate taxpayer £600, or £780 for a basic-rate taxpayer. You can make such gifts at any time of year, of course, but at Christmas you might have time to dig out the paperwork for those small parcels of shares that aren't economic to sell through a stockbroker. Many people have such holdings dating from privatisations and demutualisations in the Eighties and Nineties, for example.
Share Gift (see www.sharegift.org) is a charity set up to accept donations of such parcels of shares. They get donations from lots of small shareholders, but when aggregated the holdings are a valuable source of funds for good causes.
VOLUNTEER YOUR TIME
Whether or not you have any spare money at Christmas, you can still do your bit for charity by giving up some time - and it doesn't have to be on Christmas Day itself.
Crisis, the homelessness charity, is still looking for volunteers to help staff the Christmas centres it runs from 23 to 30 December. The centres provide food, shelter and basic personal and healthcare services.
This project is London-based but there are charities recruiting festive helpers all over the country. See www.timebank. org.uk for details of how you can help in your area.
Or if you can't spare time this Christmas but would like to help in 2007, Intelligent Giving maintains a list of organisations looking for volunteers around the country on its website.
A survey published by the Post Office last week claimed that this Christmas Britons would give more than 15 million presents, worth in excess of £400m, that people don't actually want. The Post Office's researchers were shocked to discover that only one in two people would think of giving an unwanted gift to a charity shop - one-third of us just pack such presents away, never to be used. Some people just chuck them out.
If not every present turns out to be just what you wanted this Christmas, log on to www.charityshops.org.uk, which will enable you to find your nearest charity shop. Then pop down there on your way to the new year sales.
While you're at it, the Christmas holiday is an ideal time to clear out unwanted clothes from overstuffed wardrobes - if only to make room for the sales. You can drop these off at the charity shop at the same time as the dud gifts.
CREDIT CARDS THAT HELP
If you want to support a particular charity while you're doing your Christmas shopping, a donation card can be a good way to do it. These cards are standard credit-cards with a twist - the provider makes a donation to a specific charity when you open the account, plus further donations each time you spend on the plastic.
So, for example, Greenpeace has a credit card operated by The Co-operative Bank. The environmental charity gets £18 for each new account opened, plus 0.5 per cent of all subsequent spending. Some charity cards are more generous to good causes than others, but it's not really possible to shop around, since providers have exclusive contracts. Also, these cards only really make sense to those who pay off their monthly bills in full, because they're not the most competitive in terms of interest rates.
Still, donation cards can be an easy way to support a charity. And since people spend so much in the run-up to Christmas, this is the time to open an account. Check with your charity for details of its card.
Going online this Christmas? If so, add an extra website to your surfing. At www.thenonprofits.com, you'll find a list of internet sites where you earn money for charity at no cost to you other than the time it takes to click on them.
The idea was pioneered in the United States by the Hunger Site. Each time you log on to the site and click the button in the middle of the page, its corporate sponsors pay for a cup of food for someone in the developing world.
The sponsors, including some of the world's biggest companies, do it because it's very cheap advertising. The donations are genuine and you are allowed to log on, once a day, as many times as you like.
GIVING AT WORK
Many employers are generous at Christmas and provide free parties for staff. Why not persuade your employer to ask everyone for a small donation for charity - particularly if there's a particular cause that your work supports.
You don't have to stop at Christmas - persuading your employer to set up a payroll giving scheme would be a good new year project to undertake.
The schemes are cheap to administer and enable your employer to deduct charitable donations from your salary before any income tax.
That, in effect, gives you tax relief on the gift at your highest marginal rate of tax. The Charities Aid Foundation ( www.cafonline.org) has further details.
AVOID BOGUS COLLECTORS
Finally, don't get caught out by con men at Christmas. Fraudsters know that people feel more inclined to give to good causes at this time of year, so there are more likely to be bogus collectors out to steal from you.
The Charity Commission publishes advice to publicans who may be approached by collectors who want to ask for donations on their premises, but the tips are useful for everyone. Check that collectors are working for a registered charity, with a registered charity number, the commission says. Do they have written permission from the charity to be collecting?
Be particularly suspicious about people who say they're collecting for a cause - sick children or the homeless, say - rather than a named charity. It's also worth checking what proportion of your donation will actually end up with the charity. Even if a collector is genuine, he may be receiving a large commission and you might wish to give directly instead.
If you're in any doubt, contact the charity yourself before you give. The Charity Commission (08453 000 218) can also provide verification of registered charities.Reuse content