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It needn't cost you a penny to give to charity

Charities are suffering from shrinking donations, but you can still help good causes even if you think you can't afford to

Donations to charities have plummeted since the recession, as belt-tightening has left many hard-up people unable to afford to give to their favourite causes. Figures released on Thursday reveal that donations plunged £70m last year, leaving many charities little better off than they were five years ago.

Cass Business School said voluntary donations slumped for the second year running, by 1.1 per cent to £6.05bn. "Charities are subject to a pincer movement, with their donated and investment incomes reaching a low point just as government spending cuts begin to hit their budgets," warned Professor Cathy Pharoah of the ESRC Centre for Charitable Giving and Philanthropy.

Many people have had to cut back on giving to good causes. But even if you can't afford to make a donation, you can still ensure your favourite charities benefit. By switching credit cards, savings accounts or even your cashback website, you can ensure that you're giving, even when you're can't afford to. Here are some painless and cost-free ways to give to charity.

1. Use a credit card

Switch to a charity credit card. Then, when you apply and every time you use your plastic, your favourite charity can get cash. With Co-operative's Shelter card, for instance, the charity gets £20 when the card is first used, then 25p for every £100 spent. Other charity credit cards include Amnesty, British Heart Foundation, Cancer Research, Oxfam, RSPB and Save The Children. This only works, of course, if you pay your balance off every month. If you run up a debt on plastic, choose the cheapest card.

2. Build up your savings

Open a savings account with Charity Bank and your money will earn interest while the bank lends your money to charities and social enterprises. Charity Bank's best deal is an ISA paying 2.5 per cent. For a better rate of interest, Coventry Building Society's Poppy Online Saver pays 3.1 per cent. The Royal British Legion will then a get a donation based on the average balance you keep in the account over a year.

3. Get discounts on shopping

Register for free cash rewards at www.gifttocharity.co.uk and when you use your debit or credit card at certain retailers you'll earn cash back which can be given to your chosen charity, or shared with it. Buy a BT package under the scheme, for instance, and you'll earn up to £80 cash back which you can share with or hand over to a charity. There are similar schemes offered by www.froggybank.co.uk and www.giveasyoulive.com

4. Surf the web

Instead of using Google, use www.everyclick.com. It raises money for charity every time you search the web, shop online or trade on eBay. It uses the Yahoo search engine to return exactly the same results as it would normally, but has raised about £2m for charities.

5. Shop around for insurance

There are a number of websites which offer a donation when you choose a new insurance deal. At www.donatedsomeback.com, for instance, you can search a number of providers for home, car and personal insurance and when you sign up for a new policy, the website will donate up to £25 to the charity of your choice.

6. Vote!

If you're one of the millions of members of a building society, exercise your right to vote while helping good causes. Most building societies offer a donation to charity of up to 50p in return for members voting, which led to £440,000 being handed over last year. The biggest – Nationwide – has its AGM vote coming up, with the deadline to register votes being Monday 18 July. Last year it raised £240,000 for Macmillan. This year three charities – the Alzheimer's Society, Macmillan and Shelter – will share the money raised.

7. Download music

You can buy music online and help charities at the same time through www.fairsharemusic.com. It donates 50 per cent of all profits to charity and new releases cost 79p, the same as most songs on iTunes. You can even buy a song as a gift for other people and Fairsharemusic will send it to them via email.

8. Give as you earn

Payroll Giving allows you to make donations to charity directly from your pay or company/personal pension. The donations are made after National Insurance but before income tax is deducted. That means you get tax relief on your donation immediately – and at your highest rate of tax. If you pay tax at 40 per cent, for example, and authorise a monthly donation of £10, it would actually cost you just £6. Ask your employer.

9. Write a will

If you don't have a will, you should have. Under Will Aid – which runs in November – a local solicitor writes your will, but instead of paying their fee you are invited to make a donation to Will Aid. The suggested minimum donation is £85 for a basic single will or £125 for a pair of basic mirror wills. Last year the scheme raised more than £1.5m.

10. Buy some retro fashion

Charity shops are a limitless source of good quality, cheap clothes which means you can get some great gear while raising cash for good causes. To find charity shops local to you, go to www.charityshops.org.uk

11. Round up the pennies

The Pennies Foundation works with major retailers – such as Domino's Pizza and Zizi – to allow customers to round up their purchase to the nearest pound, with the balance distributed to charity. Find out more at www.pennies.org.uk

12. Give some time

Be a volunteer through Time Bank using your skills, such as marketing, cooking, sports or accountancy. There are also mentoring projects where you help people on a one-to-one basis. Go to timebank.org.uk

13. Do good while you're waiting

Orange has a nifty "Do Some Good" app through iPhones – and other phones later in the year – which works out your location and finds small volunteering tasks you can do while waiting for friends or at lunch.

14. Be more tax-efficient

Whenever you make a donation, use the Gift Aid scheme. It allows good causes to reclaim tax on your gift. Find out how to sign up at www.hmrc.gov.uk/individuals/giving/gift-aid.htm