Making people feel that the giving is easy

Bank standing orders, deeds of covenant and one-off gifts are convenient for donors and the latter two allow charities to reclaim deducted income tax
IN 1948, supporters of the new Marie Curie Memorial Foundation met to discuss how they could raise money to continue the charity's work. Mrs Alice Macpherson threw her engagement ring on to the table, and the problem was solved.

The sale of the ring raised £75. Mrs Macpherson received the new charity's receipt Number 1, and the money was used to send out the organisation's first direct-mail fund appeal to potential supporters.

Since then, the charity's fundraising operations have gone from strength to strength. Ken Walker, head of appeals at Marie Curie Cancer Care, acknowledges the sterling work done by the thousands of volunteers who stand in high streets up and down the country holding collecting tins. Last year, £500,000 was raised for the charity in this way.

Most people who drop money in collecting cans put in between 20p and £1. The problem is, says Mr Walker, "by the time they get home they have forgotten all about it - we have only a very fleeting relationship with those people. We therefore tend to concentrate our efforts on the supporters who are prepared to give regularly. We do that by mail - and the key to the success of this approach is having the right names and addresses."

Over the years, Marie Curie Cancer Care has built up a mailing list of about 500,000 donors who gave once and were prepared to give again when asked. Mr Walker adds that, unlike supporters of many other charities, most Marie Curie supporters have been making donations for many years, in some cases for as long as 20 years. "They have a strong sense of loyalty. When we write to them at Christmas, 40 per cent of them - 200,000 people - will write back with a donation."

Obtaining the names and addresses to write to in the first place can be difficult: they are gleaned from letters sent thanking the charity for its work, or from those who send donations in lieu of buying flowers at funerals, for example.

Mr Walker says: "We have to actively encourage people to give, and we do that by sending out mailshots to the people on our list several times a year. People are at their most generous in the run-up to Christmas." In the financial year 1994/95, income from this source amounted to £5m.

Keeping 500,000 names on the mailing list requires constant effort, because people die, move house, lose their jobs - or find other charities that they prefer to support.

"Every year, we need to find another 30,000 to 40,000 supporters just to keep the list at the same level," Mr Walker says. "To do that, we send out over three million appeal letters every year. These arrive with people's normal post but, because they are unaddressed, the charge for postage is very low."

Computerisation has helped to streamline the operation of the direct mail appeals. "Like most charities, all our records used to be kept in shoeboxes," Mr Walker says, "but now we are computerised, we can provide donors with a far better service than in the past. We can identify those who have stated that they just want to give on Daffodil Day, or those who just want to give at Christmas. We no longer have to conduct a lengthy search through our filing cabinets just to find their records."

Soliciting donations by mail nevertheless remains relatively expensive. So Marie Curie Cancer Care writes regularly to those who donate to encourage them to give by standing order. Mr Walker says: "We have had a lot of success in setting up regular giving - more than 3,000 people have converted to this method in the last 15 months. It is a more economical way for us to collect money and many people are happy to give two, three or four pounds a month by standing order."

One supporter who decided to make out a standing order to Marie Curie Cancer Care is Jan Mackey, who works as a local government officer in Lewisham. She says: "My mother used to give regularly to Marie Curie Cancer Care and she died of cancer, so I have carried on where she left off."

Instead of having flowers at her mother's funeral, Ms Mackey decided to ask everyone to send a donation to Marie Curie Cancer Care. "Since then I have contributed fairly regularly throughout the year. Then, a few months ago, I looked at my situation. I realised I was fortunate in that I was employed, fairly well off and have my health - which many people don't - and I felt it was my duty as a citizen to give on a more regular basis rather than it being a bit haphazard."

Marie Curie Cancer Care sends regular donors such as Ms Mackey periodic invitations to sign a deed of covenant. This method is only suitable for donors who are taxpayers. The donor undertakes to make regular payments to the charity for four years - and the charity can reclaim the tax that the donor has paid, from the Inland Revenue. For example, if someone makes regular payments of £100, Marie Curie Cancer Care can reclaim £33 in tax, this being equivalent to the 25 per cent in tax that the donor has paid on £133 of gross income. So the donation of £100 is worth £133 to the charity.

Income from deeds of covenant, and from those who give regularly by standing order, when taken together, amounts to £1.25m a year for Marie Curie Cancer Care.

A related scheme is called Gift Aid. This makes it possible for the charity to reclaim the tax paid on large one-off gifts - those in excess of £250 - so long as the taxpayer is resident in the UK. Mr Walker says there has been a tremendous shift away from deeds of covenant towards higher one-off gifts.

He says: "Some people don't like the commitment of covenants. If they have £300 that they want to give now, they don't want to have to undertake to give the same for four years running. But with Gift Aid, the £300 that they give becomes £400 towards our work." Any taxpayer who sends in a suitably large donation to Marie Curie Cancer Care is sent a form to fill in to allow the charity to claim the tax back.

Marie Curie Cancer Care is also encouraging employers and employees to take part in another tax-efficient scheme, whereby donations to charity can be deducted from gross income and the employee is taxed only on the remainder.

Mr Walker says: "Some employers encourage this scheme and provide facilities for half a dozen charities to give presentations to employees, who then decide whom they want to support. It has the advantage of regular giving without the long-term commitment of the covenant, and very low amounts can be deducted." Such schemes are administered by payroll-giving agencies such as the Charities Aid Foundation in return for a small commission.

Mr Walker says: "The attraction for a lot of charities is that often this strategy brings in people who do not normally give to charity. The typical charity donor tends to be older - often retired - and female. People who take part in payroll-giving schemes tend to be in their twenties, thirties or forties and in full-time employment. We tend to have quite a lot of success in light industrial sites, which means we are reaching a different group of supporters - and that we are not robbing Peter to pay Paul."