Push the boat out: give extra to good causes

Donations from this year's London Marathon look set to top £35m. But our gifts go further if they're tax efficient

Some do it privately, quietly setting up a direct debit from their bank accounts, while others prefer to do it with a splash at a gala event.

Still others - some 34,500 people - are willing to pound the streets for 26.2 miles to do their bit for charity. Today, these hardy runners - myself among them - will be snaking their way through London in the capital's 25th marathon, raising an estimated £35m, £1m more than last year.

No matter how you do it, charities large and small are the real winners. Nearly two-thirds of us give to good causes in some form, according to the most recent figures from the Charities Aid Foundation (CAF).

Britons donate more than £8.2bn a year to charity, via the chuggers who approach us on the high street, volunteers shaking collecting tins, direct debits and one-off corporate donations.

One in five adults gives in a planned way, usually by direct debit. The average donation for those who do is currently £18 a month.

However, many believe the size of the donation is a distraction. "Whether £2 a month or £20 - it really doesn't matter. It goes towards everything from paying staff to pick up the phone to carrying out research," says Jo Swinhoe, the director of fundraising at the Alzheimer's Society, which raised £18.7m from the public last year - up by 9 per cent on 2004.

Yet we're still not doing as much as we could.

Despite a six-year government drive to promote the benefits of tax-efficient giving, not enough of us tick the Gift Aid box on the forms we use when we donate. This would allow our preferred charity to receive extra cash from Revenue & Customs for free.

Although two-thirds of high-level donors (people who give more than £100 a month) tick the box, only a third of all donors do so. And of those who give less than £5 a month, only one in six made their gift tax-efficient. But donors shouldn't worry too much if they're not making the absolute most of their gift.

"Giving to charity is often a matter of the heart instead of the head," Ms Swinhoe says. "We don't want people not to donate because they're not being tax-efficient."

Donating to good causes will be all the more satisfying, however, if you make the effort to make your gift go further. Some of the most popular ways to do this are outlined below.

Gift Aid

Tick the box when you donate, and for every pound you give to your chosen charity the taxman will add another 28p.

Always look for the Gift Aid box, whether in magazines, newspapers or special charity leaflets. If there isn't one, you can ask the charity for a form or download one from the Inland Revenue's website and print it off. See www.hmrc.gov.uk/charities

However, you must be a taxpayer to take advantage.

And if you're a higher-rate taxpayer, you can claim an extra 18 per cent relief on your original donation when filling in your self-assessment form.

Making a will

Any donations made under the terms of a will won't count as part of an estate for the purposes of inheritance tax - levied at 40 per cent on anything over £285,000.

In most cases, individuals leave specific sums directly to their favourite charities. Alternatively, you can opt to donate the residue of an estate - any money left after everything else has been settled.

Giving via a payroll

Donating through your payslip is an easy way to make regular, tax-efficient contributions.

Every month, a sum is deducted from your pre-tax pay packet by your employer, which must be signed up to a payroll charity scheme such as the CAF's Give As You Earn.

You choose the charity and determine how much you want to give. In most cases, you can change the charities you donate to whenever you want.

Today, some six million workers use the payroll giving scheme, and the average sum they donate is £11 a month. In the 1999-2000 tax year, £27m was gifted this way; by 2004-05, the figure had risen to £95m.

If your company is not enrolled, ask your personnel department about signing up. See www.payrollgiving.co.uk

Giving away shares

Donating unwanted small holdings of shares to charity is another way of giving to have been more widely adopted in recent years. Sharegift, a charity share donation scheme, was set up in 1996. In that year it gave £16,000 to six different charities. Last year, it passed £2.1m to 471 organisations.

Although anybody can give unwanted shares directly to a charity, the cost of dealing with them can be prohibitive - particularly for smaller charities. If a broker is used to sell your shares, a dealing fee will be payable, and while this probably won't be more than £10, that's still a high price if the value of the transaction is small.

The Sharegift scheme was set up to get around this problem. It pools all share donations and, at least twice a year, cashes them in and spreads the money across the major charities.

There are tax advantages too for donors who give in this way. For example, basic-rate taxpayers donating £6,000 worth of listed shares could deduct that sum from their overall income tax bills.

See www.sharegift.org

Donating online

The website justgiving.com, which lets you design your own site for charitable fundraising, has helped boost online donations. Note, however, that it levies a 5 per cent transaction fee to cover running costs.

See www.justgiving.com

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