Seven ways to give more to charity at Christmas

There are a variety of ways to support good causes over the festive season, says David Prosser

Time may be running out to do your Christmas shopping, but don't be panicked into a headlong rush towards the temples of consumerism. Christmas and charity used to be inextricably linked, but with high street shops and internet retailers fighting a fierce battle for your hard-earned cash, it's easy to forget that this is supposed to be the season of goodwill.

In fact, there are all sorts of ways you can enjoy a fun Christmas and support some fantastic causes too. By putting your money to the best possible use, you can avoid a new-year hangover of guilt about your excessive consumption.

CHRISTMAS CARDS

Charity Christmas cards seem like a win-win situation. Most people are sending cards anyway, so by buying cards where a chunk of your money goes to charity, you can support good causes while you're writing to friends and relatives. Last year, Britons sent 1.8 billion cards - around half were charity cards.

However, not all retailers give the same amount to good causes. In the worst cases, they pass on less than 10p in the pound. The rest of your money goes straight into their bottom line.

Every year, the Charities Advisory Trust surveys the amount different retailers donate. Hilary Blume, a director of the charity, which offers its own Card Aid range, warns: "It's a minefield, so check where your money really goes before you buy."

This December, the Charities Advisory Trust gave a "Scrooge Award" to John Lewis - the retailer passes on an average of 7.9 per cent of the cost of its cards to charity.

Liberty's, meanwhile, won the dubious honour of the "Georgie Porgie Award for the Greedy". Its cards are more expensive, yet charities get an average donation of 5 per cent of the purchase price.

Most shops give different amounts depending on the particular cards you buy. In the worst case, Fenwick has been selling a pack of five charity cards for £3.95, but just 5p of this goes to charity - less than 2 per cent of the price.

Based on average donations, the Charities Advisory Trust ranks Clinton Cards (21 per cent), Paperchase (14 per cent) and Boots, Marks & Spencer and Waterstones (all 10 per cent) the most generous retailers. Liberty's (5 per cent) and Harrods (6 per cent) came bottom.

Retailers need to cover their costs and earn a profit, of course. But as a benchmark for comparison, Card Aid ( www.cardaid.co.uk) gives an average of 40 per cent of the purchase price of its cards.

GOOD GIFTS

The Good Gifts catalogue ( www.goodgifts.org/) was set up two years ago and now works with around 40 charities all over the world. Charity Oxfam ( www.oxfamunwrapped.com) runs a similar service.

The idea is simple: rather than spending a fortune on lots of unethical consumer durables, you put your money to better use. Gifts range from bikes for African midwives to goats for subsistence farmers - there are also a number of UK-based presents.

The presents don't have to be expensive and you get a card that you can give to the person on whose behalf you are donating. Prices at Good Gifts start at £12, which enables you to sponsor rare types of vegetable threatened with extinction because commercial buyers such as supermarkets won't stock them.

For £12 from Oxfam, you can buy a hygiene kit for distribution to families hit by natural disasters.

In all, there are 120 gifts available in the Good Gifts catalogue. One option proving popular this year is weapons decommissioning. For £25, for example, you can buy a Kalashnikov in Sierra Leone, which will be made into tools for farmers.

Push the boat out and you can buy a tank for £1,000 - it will provide a year's work for five blacksmiths, who will turn it into 3,000 items to equip a farming village of 100 families. Good Gifts' Charlotte Pavry says the organisation is very keen to ensure its costs are transparent. "We have a one-off £4.95 charge on each order, no matter how many gifts you buy, which covers your costs," she explains. "That means we can hand over every single penny of your money to your chosen charity - and it has to spend the cash on the gift you selected."

UK taxpayers can get even more value out of charity gifts by asking for Gift Aid (see below) to be added to the price.

VOLUNTARY WORK

Your time can be just as valuable as money. Research published this week by pollster YouGov suggests several tragic events this year, from the Boxing Day tsunami to the bombings in London, have left people much more willing to volunteer for charity work. One in four Britons say they have already signed up to help a charity or would like to do so over the holiday season.

The research was published to coincide with the launch of the annual campaign from Crisis ( www.crisis.org.uk), the charity that works with homeless people, which is looking for 3,500 people to help in its centres this Christmas.

Shaks Ghosh, the charity's chief executive, says: "Many people don't just want to give, they also want to get up and do something for others. At a time when there is a lot of commercialism around, I was surprised by the amount of people who are rejecting that message."

For other volunteering opportunities, see the web site promoting 2005 as year of the volunteer (at www.yearofthevolunteer.org). It offers users the chance to pledge a chunk of time, from 10 minutes to longer periods.

GIFT AID

Gordon Brown offered charities an early Christmas present last month, by making it easier for people to claim Gift Aid when making donations by telephone. Charities no longer have to write to each donor individually, confirming Gift Aid has been claimed.

The tax break is a generous one. 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 - verbally or in writing - giving your name and address and confirming that you're a taxpayer.

In return, the charity gets basic-rate tax relief on your gift, so every £1 it receives is worth £1.28. Higher-rate taxpayers can then claim the difference between the basic and higher rates of income tax - currently 18 per cent - on their tax returns.

A higher-rate taxpayer who gives £100 to charity therefore ends up making a donation worth £128. After claiming tax relief, the gift only costs £77. Go to the Giving Campaign ( www.givingcampaign.org.uk) for more details.

You can also make tax-efficient gifts of shares, including unit and investment trust holdings, to charities and claim tax relief on the full value of the gift on the date is made. Giving shares worth £1,000 to a charity would cost a higher-rate taxpayer £600, rising to £780 for a basic- rate taxpayer.

Alternatively, you can speak to Share Gift (at www.sharegift.org), a charity set up to accept donations of shares. It's a good way to dispose of small holdings of shares that would be uneconomic to sell using a stockbroker.

PAYROLL GIVING

Companies prepared to spend large sums on staff Christmas parties may also be persuaded to set up a payroll-giving scheme. Charitable donations are deducted from your salary before any income tax, which effectively gives you tax relief on the gift at your highest marginal rate of tax. The scheme is administered by the Charities Aid Foundation ( www.cafonline.org) and employers have the option of matching staff donations.

INTERNET AID

If you have a spare five minutes over Christmas, you can go online to get some of the world's biggest companies to make charitable donations on your behalf.

The concept of internet aid has been pioneered by the Hunger Site - you simply log on and click the button in the middle of the page. Each time you do so, the site's corporate sponsors pay for a cup of food to be delivered to someone in the developing world.

Too good to be true? Martin Lewis, of the Moneysavingexpert.com website, says: "It's a win-win situation - the sponsors get relatively cheap internet advertising and it's an easy hassle-free way of helping other people without any cost to you."

The Hunger Site ( www.hungersite.com) has links to two sister sites ( www.thebreastcancersite.com and www.therainforestsite.com) so you can make three donations very quickly. Also look at www.thenonprofits.com, which lists a range of similar sites.

Want to splash the cash at Christmas and still feel good about yourself? Get a charity-linked credit card

* Even if you are buying the most commercial Christmas presents in the world, you can still give cash to charity this year without actually spending any extra cash. Buy all of your presents on a credit card linked to a charity, and you will be donating each time you spend money.

* The majority of the large charities - and many of the smaller organisations - have set up deals with the credit card providers. Typically, the charity receives a donation when you initially take out the plastic, as well as a small percentage of the value of every transaction that you decide to put onto the card thereafter.

* A typical example is Halifax's Cancer Research UK card. The charity gets £20 from the bank for every account opened, plus 0.25 per cent of all spending on the plastic. So £500 worth of your Christmas shopping will donate £1.25 to the relevant organisation.

* Andrew Haggers, of Moneyfacts, the savings and credit analyst, says: "Consumers can donate every day of the year using financial products linked to charity." Some banks and building societies also offer savings accounts linked to charity, which operate on a similar basis, he points out.

* Moneyfacts maintains a list of charitable credit cards and savings accounts on its website ( www.moneyfacts.co.uk). However, be a little careful. Like any conventional plastic, charitable credit cards charge interest if you don't pay off your balance in full within 60 days or so. So don't be tempted to spend more than you can actually afford simply because you're paying on plastic this year.

* If you are borrowing to finance Christmas, several charitable cards come with 0 per cent introductory offers. If you can't find a deal linked to the good cause you support, take out a conventional credit card with an interest-free offer. In the new year, you can them use the money you would otherwise have spent on interest charges to make a donation to the charity.

'This is a better use of our money'

Di Clarfelt, a nurse who lives in Barnes, west London, thinks that Christmas cards are an expensive waste of money. So, this year, she and her husband, John, aren't sending cards to most of their friends and relatives.

Instead, they've spent the money on a present from the Good Gifts catalogue, and provided the organisation with a list of people who won't be receiving cards. Their friends will all get an e-mail from Good Gifts explaining that the Clarfelts have used the cash they would have spent on cards to help provide training to vets in Africa.

The money - £250 - will support vets operating in rural communities in Somaliland, Kenya, Mozambique and Tanzania, where people are dependent on their livestock.

"I think this is a much better use of our money," Clarfelt says. "Though we'll be sending a few cards to relatives who aren't online," she adds.

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