What's the best way to help those about to hit hard times?

With the pressure on charities greater than ever as donations slump, those who support good causes are being urged to make their goodwill go as far as possible

Charities are in desperate need of help. With more than 180,000 registered with the Charity Commission, not to mention the numerous smaller causes, competition to attract much-needed income is increasingly fierce.

This is particularly worrying when you consider that a relatively modest £9.3bn was donated in 2011/12 – a slump of £1.7bn on the previous year, according to the Charities Aid Foundation (CAF), which illustrates the problem facing fundraisers.

The money is also coming from a limited number of individuals. In fact, the CAF says only 9 per cent of the population account for 66 per cent of charitable activity, which includes donations made and time spent volunteering.

As a result, these good causes are using every available weapon in their armoury to attract support, such as social media sites Facebook and Twitter, and coming up with innovative ways to boost their income.

One such charity vying for the public's attention is Tree of Hope (treeofhope.org.uk) which provides assistance to the families of sick and disabled children that are trying to raise money for specialist medical surgery, treatment, therapy and equipment. The organisation, which helps families across the country, recently set up an e-commerce site called Blossom (blossomforchildren.co.uk) which has the tagline, Funky stuff for children with needs, and sells a wide variety of toys, clothing and mobility aids.

Jeremy Marris, the chief executive, says the new venture has been a tremendous success, both in terms of making money for the charity and for helping to attract publicity to the work that it has been carrying out for the past two decades.

"We noticed a huge gap in the market because although you could buy these things individually, there wasn't one place that stocked them all," he says. "It's now been going three months and has helped give Tree of Hope even more credibility."

The CAF has discovered that more people give to charity in November and March than in any other month – which happens to coincide with major TV appeals Comic Relief and Children in Need.

More than 27 million Britons, 57 per cent of the adult population, gave money during these months, which was three million more than average.

In addition, the website JustGiving has identified 21 December as being one of the most charitable days of the year, so with that in mind how can you give a hand to these causes? Here is our eight-point guide to making a difference over the next few weeks.

1. Donate to your local charity shop

Clear out your wardrobe and loft to gather any unwanted items to donate. Charity shops are desperate for good quality items and you can find a shop near you by visiting the Charity Retail Association's website (charityretail.org.uk).

Make sure that whatever you donate is saleable and not broken, and take it in yourself rather than the charity having to pay for the items to be collected. Particularly in demand will be bags, books, clothing, music, paintings and toys.

2. Send a charity Christmas card

Send charity Christmas cards – and pay attention to how much money from the sale of each pack goes to the cause itself. While most retailers now accept 10 per cent for charity is an acceptable minimum, there are still some that hand over less.

This year the annual Scrooge Award, given by the Charities Advisory Trust to the retailer handing over the least amount, has gone to Asda, with the Trust stating the one charity card in its range gives only 6.6 per cent to charity, and at 60p was one of the most expensive.

3. Buy unusual Christmas presents

Stuck for present ideas? Then check out Good Gifts (goodgifts.org), which has a vast array of options.

For example, for £10 you can supply footballs to underprivileged children in the UK, or for £26 you can educate a child in Africa for an entire year.

Elsewhere, a hamper of necessities and treats for an elderly person can be purchased for only £25, while for those with more to spend, a £700 donation is enough to let a hard-pressed family of four enjoy a week-long holiday by the seaside.

4. Support charity events

There are now a number of websites providing links to good causes to which you can donate. Justgiving.com, for example, has helped thousands of individuals to raise millions of pounds for various causes. In addition, share links to your favourite charities and events on social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter. It takes just a few seconds of your time but you could be helping attract new supporters.

5. Offer to become a volunteer

Money is obviously important to any charity but committing your time can be equally as valuable. This can involve anything from standing outside supermarkets with collection tins, to putting on events.

Find out what is going on in your area or log on to TimeBank (timebank.org.uk), the national charity inspiring people to volunteer, in order to see what projects are ongoing that might inspire you to take part.

6. Research charities

There is certainly no shortage of worthy causes so you need to research what is already established and decide which charities to support. You can start by asking family and friends or seeing what organisations are operating in your area.

Another option is to visit ocalgiving.com, which enables visitors to search local charities and community groups by area, cause and people likely to benefit from any donations that are received.

7. Make a tax-efficient donation

Whatever you donate, make sure that it is done tax-efficiently as this can be a massive extra help to your charity of choice. Two of the most effective methods are Gift Aid and Payroll Giving.

Your Gift Aid donation is treated as if basic rate income tax has already been deducted by the donor. Charities can then reclaim that tax from HM Revenue & Customs (HMRC). Basic rate tax is 20 per cent, so this means that if you give £10 using Gift Aid, it is worth £12.50 to the charity.

You can also give money to charity direct from your pay or company/personal pension using the Payroll Giving scheme. It costs you less because your donation is given to charity from your gross salary before any tax is taken off – so you don't pay tax on it.

8. Make a commitment

Consider making a regular donation to a favoured charity – such as by monthly direct debit or standing order. For example, the Barby Keel Animal Sanctuary in Sidley, East Sussex, for example, offers the chance to sponsor one of its residents.

The charity, which has been caring for abandoned or neglected animals, including dogs, cats, horses and chickens, for almost 40 years, has put up full details of its offer on its website (barbykeel.btck.co.uk).

Rough ride: the flip side of racing

FORDS-care, which aims to tackle financial hardship among those injured in the exciting world of oval racing, is one of the latest worthy causes to have become a registered charity.

The organisation (fords-care.com) was launched in 2011 to provide support to drivers, track staff and media personnel hurt at any of the 700-plus short-circuit motor racing events that take place every year.

And even though the sport, which includes banger, stock car and hot-rod racing, has a good safety record, FORDS-care's secretary, Manuela Stento, believes the charity has a big role to play in helping people who are unlucky on the track.

"Our charity doesn't pull at the heart strings because it's all about helping somebody who gets injured doing their hobby, but we make a difference to their lives," she says. "If we can help prevent someone's house being repossessed, that's huge for their family."

Amounts paid out vary depending on the individual. Claimants will be expected to provide a sick note and some payslips, after which a decision will be made based on their personal circumstances.

This year the charity has paid out £25,000 to 34 drivers and staff, and £46,000 to 67 individuals over the past two and a half years. It turns over about £50,000 a year, but the aim is to double that amount.

About a third of this turnover comes from the Oval Racing Council and promoters, with the rest from donations and the proceeds of events held in the season, such as a special race series.

Among the innovative ways to raise money was a DVD by documentary film-maker Dan Moth, who went behind the scenes with the notorious Bears banger racing team based in Brighton.

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