Ethical giving this Christmas: getting past the charity hard sell

Most high street shops are feeling the effect of this summer’s financial crisis, as consumers find credit dearer and more difficult to obtain.

But online shopping has bucked the trend has entered into another league this Xmas. Online sales reached  £370m on 10 December, surpassing last year one-day high of  £291m.

Naturally charities want a piece of this pie. It is a time of year when more people than usual feel well-disposed to good causes and charities have found ways of tapping into this mood.

Charity Christmas cards have been around for years. But recently studies by Intelligent Giving and Which magazine have shown that all to often very little of the sale price finds its way back to the charity’s coffers.

In 2005 Clintons and WH Smith gave 25% of the cost of the pack of their own-brand cards to charity. But Harrods was worst performer in 200 and 2006, as its charity cards averaged donations of just 6.6%.

The big charities can afford the production costs of doing their own cards and this brings in more money. For example, Cancer Research estimates that around 50% of the purchase price goes to the charity, after the costs of production are subtracted.

The smaller outfits are at the mercy of the big high street retailers. Yet help is at hand. A new company Studio51 guarantees to pass back 51% of all sales of cards back to the smaller charities, without having to bear the start-up costs.

But the really big development in the last few years has been the growth of sale of online gifts by charities, which aim to benefit communities in the global south. Charitable gift giving has trebled in the last three years, according to Christian Aid.

Each Christmas we spend more than £10bn on Xmas gifts and research by World Vision suggests that an average person wastes £50 on unwanted Xmas presents. And more and more people are dissatisfied with the waste and excess of mindless giving. They would prefer to forgo getting or giving presents destined to gather dust or for resale on eBay; instead, many are now keen to buy something from a charity online that relieves poverty or boosts literacy in Africa or the UK.

Oxfam was a trendsetter in this regard, with its “give a goat this Xmas” campaign a few years back. The upside of this kind of gift is that it does not just fill a child’s stomach for a day but aims to foster sustainable development

A goat breeding programme sponsored by ActionAid for example claims:

“Many people in Mozambique struggle to feed themselves by cultivating the land. One project your gift could help fund is a goat breeding scheme. Two goats are given to the poorest households. Their milk feeds the family and the remainder is sold. When kids are born, some are kept to grow the herd. Others are sold so the family can buy tools and seeds.”

But these schemes are not without their critics. Some are concerned with the details; for example, does the money go to specific identifiable project/person or into a more general fund?

Moreover, how much is swallowed up by administrative costs and never reaches the intended recipient? Good Gifts  a pioneer in the field of ethical gift giving – promises all the money goes to intended project and its handling charge is separate and added on so this is transparent. Cafod says 10% goes in admin fees which they claim is one of the lowest rates in the sector.

Another charge is that in the search to get ahead of rivals charities are forced to be more and more gimmicky in their selection of gifts, so as to attract attention of the donor. Indeed, wasn’t that the point of “give a goat”?

Indeed, goat-giving has attracted lots of criticism for being not just glimmicky but actually at odds with sustainable development.  Some people are dubious as to the value of all this.

Matthew Plowright for Money uk said recently “our good-intentioned generosity may actually be causing long-term damage in parts of the developing world. Last December two environmental charity groups, the World Land Trust and Animal Aid, launched a stinging attack on the gift catalogue groups, warning that introducing animals into areas in which they are not a part of the natural landscape was actually adding to the problems of drought and desertification.”

John Burton, director of the World Land Trust, urged shoppers not to buy into the charity goat phenomenon.

“The goat campaign may be a pleasing gift and a short-term fix for milk and meat for a few individuals,” he said. “But in the long-term the quality of life for these people will slowly be reduced with devastating effect.”

Oxfam and other reject this charge, insisting that the animals they choose are the result of collaboration with the communities on the ground and that they are sustainable.

An alternative to using an established charity to lend to projects is to go direct. Websites such as Kiva allow you to lend money to entrepreneurs in poorer countries and receive information about how the project is progressing.

Finally, if you are worried about the carbon footprint of all these Xmas cards or sending goats around the world then help is at hand. Why not send an e-card with donation; and even better if you have forgot to send a friend or family member a present by the time you read this then you can still put a smile on a friends face this Xmas at the last minute.



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