Christmas is a time to buy presents for loved ones – but how about giving some time and money to charities as well? There are many ways to help – virtual gifts, giving unwanted goods to charity shops, or helping out at a soup kitchen.
Adam Rothwell, director of Intelligent Giving, the charity advisory website, says: "Charities raise an astonishing proportion of their income at this time. They have also become innovative; they know that the more creative their campaigns, the more money they earn."
Charities have made it easier for people to donate in person, by phone or over the internet, through their own websites as well as through the likes of JustGiving.com.
Today is your last chance to send Christmas cards first class within the UK and Channel Islands in time for the big day. But make sure they are truly benefiting the charities they claim to support. Check how much actually goes to the cause; whether the funds are for a designated charity; and if proceeds are a percentage of the sale price or the profits, as the latter might end up being next to nothing.
Among the best is the "Tree of Hope" card from Mencap; at least 80p in every pound raised goes to the charity, according to research by Intelligent Giving.
At the other end of the scale is Harrods, winner of the Scrooge Award from the Charities Advisory Trust for three years running. Of its charity cards, 82 per cent gave less than 10 per cent to charity, and 46 per cent less than 5 per cent.
There's always room here for contributions of anything saleable, says Lekha Klouda, director of the Association of Charity Shops. "There is a concern that the consumer slowdown means people will have less to give away, and volumes of donations are already falling," she says. "This is a great time for people to have a clear-out."
Virtually anything can be donated – as long as it's not broken. A teapot without a spout is only fit for the bin! Visit the www.charityshops.org.uk website for a list of charity shops in your area.
Certain items are in high demand. Orchid (www.orchid-cancer.org.uk) can make use of unwanted mobile phones and used inkjet cartridges.
Many people decide to give a one-off donation at this time of year, but if you do – and you're a taxpayer – make sure it benefits from Gift Aid. This tax break is worth almost £1bn a year to charities. All it takes is a few minutes to complete a form. Charities then reclaim tax on the gross equivalent of the donation; for every £1, they get an extra 25p.
Also, because the basic rate of tax went down from 22 per cent to 20 per cent in April, HM Revenue & Customs will pay a further 3p transitional relief for every £1 donated up until 5 April 2011.
If you want to give regularly to a variety of causes, consider opening a Charities Aid Foundation (CAF) Charity Account. This works like a normal current account, but only holds funds you have put aside to give away.
Account holders – there are about 80,000 in the UK – receive a CharityCard and chequebook, enabling them to make donations by post, in person, by phone or online via a secure password.
The internet has made giving easier; lust log on to sites such as Justgiving.com and there are thousands of good causes to which you can donate. You can even help causes when you sell unwanted goods on eBay by donating a percentage from the sale to a charity. Gift Aid can be added to the equation, while eBay fees will be re-credited, depending on the level of donation. If you donated, say, 40 per cent of your item's sale price, you will get back 40 per cent of the selling fees (basic insertion and final value).
You can help charities every time you go shopping by taking out a charity credit card, says to Tim Newhouse of Moneysupermarket.com. "We used to advise people to avoid them as they were better off using a different card and making a separate donation," he says. "However, some are now close to market-leading." He highlights NSPCC and Cancer Research UK cards, which both offer 0 per cent on purchases and balance transfers for nine months, and give £20 to the charity the first time the card is used, and a percentage of subsequent transactions.
Coming up with innovative ideas is vital for smaller charities. The Sara Lee Trust, which must raise £190,000 a year to provide complementary therapies for those living with cancer, motor neurone disease and HIV/Aids in Hastings, Rother and Rye, offers people the chance to plant trees in memory of loved ones – one for £10, three for £25, six for £50 – at Powdermill Wood in Battle, East Sussex. Donors receive a certificate, a Book of Dedication entry, and an invite to a memorial gathering (www.saraleetrust.org).
Give away unwanted shares
You can donate unwanted shares to charity, says Andy Gadd at Lighthouse Group. "There are tax benefits," he says. "Sign over your shares to charity and there's no capital gains tax and you can offset their value against income tax."
If you have a small number of shares, it's more cost-effective to donate via ShareGift (www.sharegift.org), which collects shares and makes charitable donations when they have accumulated enough to sell.
Other ways to help
You can make donations via direct debit, or help by putting in a few hours' fundraising every month. You can also give money via a payroll scheme at work, says Geoff Penrice at Bates Investment Services. "The employer makes regular payments by deduction from salary to a charity. The money is deducted before the calculation of tax under PAYE, which gives the employee tax relief at their highest rate."
Giving to charity doesn't have to be restricted to Christmas, says Adam Rothwell at Intelligent Giving. "Charities can do with help throughout the year. They are always in need of two things: volunteers and long-term, regular sources of income."
How to make a difference
Fancy spending £5 on socks for the homeless? Or £25 on sheep for an Indian village? Ethical gifts that make a real difference around the world have been one of the boom areas of recent years. Visit GoodGifts (www.good gifts.org) for a huge range.
It's not just charities supporting projects in far-flung corners of the world that are offering virtual gifts. The RNLI has set up a dedicated website (www.rnli-splashout.org.uk) with a huge range of presents on offer.
For example, a first aid bag for a lifeguard costs just £17, while a pair of sea boots is £36. Those with more to spend can fund a rescue tube for £65, a safety helmet for £180 or an overboard training dummy for £370.
Anne Maton, the RNLI's fundraising manager, says: "It enables us to get our message across in a fun way, reach a different audience to the one that traditionally supports us, and illustrate the importance of our volunteer crews' work."
Another option is to fund a piece of research. Orchid (www.orchid-cancer.org.uk), promoting awareness of prostate and testicular cancer, provides leaflets and information about its work.
Charitable giving: Facts and figures
* The average total amount donated each year is about £8.9m.
* The total given each year per UK adult is £183.36.
* Almost 60 per cent of the UK population gives to charity at least once a month.
* Cash is the most popular method; 49 per cent of donors do it this way.
* Medical research attracts more donors than any other cause (40 per cent), followed by young people's causes, hospitals and hospices.
Source: Institute of Fundraising
Volunteering: People are needed as well as money
You don't have to make large donations – giving up some of your time can be just as helpful.
There is still time to join the 7,000 volunteers helping out Crisis Christmas, which sets up temporary centres across London between 23 December and 30 December, offering help and support to the homeless. Visit the website at www.crisis.org.uk to see how you may be able to help.
If you live outside the capital, you can find a list of volunteer organisations that will welcome help by visiting Intelligent Giving (www.intelligentgiving.com).