Community: Experts reveal the 12 myths of Christmas giving

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With the festive season fast approaching, England’s leading representative body for the voluntary sector is appealing to the British public to extend their generosity and goodwill to charities this Christmas.

The National Council for Voluntary Organisations (NCVO) is releasing Twelve Myths of Christmas Giving, which debunk some of the misconceptions about how charities use donations and remind people of the importance of giving, especially in the tough economic climate.

Figures from the Centre for Giving and Philanthropy (CGAP) show that the proportion of people giving to charity rises by 5 per cent in December, and average donations see a slight rise. However, to put this in perspective, people spend £14 a head on Christmas lunch and a total of £20 billion on the cost of Christmas every year – nearly double the amount donated annually to charities (£11 billion). And each Christmas sees £2 billion spent on unwanted Christmas gifts in the UK.

Sir Stuart Etherington, Chief Executive of NCVO, said: ‘No one should deny themselves the right to eat, drink and be merry over the festive period, but we want to remind people that putting a little aside to support your local charities really can deliver a world of difference. Charities have come through a difficult year where they have had to balance spending cuts against rising demand for their services, making donations more important than ever.

‘We also hope that our Twelve Myths of Christmas Giving will demonstrate how much impact giving to charity can make in these challenging economic times and remind people that the vast majority of charities do excellent work on a very tight budget. Without the public’s generosity, charities would not be able to provide the crucial services that people and communities need.’

1. Myth: We can’t trust anyone anymore who asks us for money, they’re all just bogus collectors stealing our gifts

Reality: It’s easy to check if a charity is real: look for the charity registration number on any literature and ask questions about who the collector works for. More advice is available here.1 Yes, there are some people out there who are trying to take advantage of our goodwill, but they are few in number and they are being brought to justice. It’s a tiny minority of charities that are fraudulent and that we’re as keen as anyone to root these out.

2. Myth: It’s pointless giving to charity, most of your donation goes on administration costs

Reality: Most charities are well run and do things as efficiently as possible. Delivering programmes means charities need buildings and staff, most of whom are ‘frontline’…but this often gets mistaken for being administration. NCVO estimates that 85% of charities’ expenditure goes on delivering their programmes of work.

3. Fundraising costs wipe out most of our donations before they even get to the charity (at which point, see myth 2…)

Reality: Fundraising and publicity costs are 8% of charities’ total income. For smaller charities, most fundraising is entirely voluntary: over half of the entire charity sector spends just £2.3m in total on fundraising. For every £1 spent on fundraising, a charity will make an average of £5 back so this isn’t a waste of money, just a smart decision

4. Charities are just big businesses now, there’s no point giving to them

Reality: Not really. The biggest fundraising charity in the UK is Cancer Research UK, with an income of £482m: using the CBI’s definition, this is a medium sized business.2 Similar sized private companies include Dyson (£514m). Tesco controls 31.6% of the grocery market – whereas Cancer Research UK accounts for 1.4% of the charity sector’s income. More broadly, we give £11bn to charity each year. Retail sales in the month of October 2011 were almost £27bn.3 Big charities are almost certainly not big business in terms of their scale, and all remain values-driven organisations.

5. There are far too many charities anyway – they’re just wastefully duplicating what each other does. I’d give (more) if they merge.

Reality: There are a lot of charities: NCVO’s definition counts 170,000 across the UK. And yes, there is overlap. Many people in charities are working to reduce this. But do you really want to start closing down any of the 13,700 PTAs or 8,400 playgroups and nurseries? Like many other charities, these are local and specific to the people who use them. And many are supported by their members’ contributions.

6. We’re letting government off the hook by giving to charity – we will just end up paying for things that our taxes should be paying for

Reality: Charities often supplement the provision that our taxes pay for, such as buying equipment in schools or funding new or innovative medical procedures or research. Many charities work to prevent problems from happening – early intervention – that if not addressed end up costing the state even more down the line. So there is an enlightened self interest in giving to charity.

7. Most people aren’t rich enough to give the sort of gift that would make a difference anyway.

Reality: We know that poorer people give more as a percentage of their income. According to Polly Toynbee and David Walker, the top fifth of households give less than 1% of their income, while the poorest 10th give 3% of their income.

Small donations can make a big difference, particularly to small charities. It helps even more if donations are planned, or regular, so charities can be certain about their resources.

But we’ll leave Margaret Mead to have the final word on this one: A small group of thoughtful people could change the world. Indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.

8. Rich people don’t give, so why should I?

Reality: Despite all the banker bashing and the like in the media, the reality is that rich people do give to charity. Of the £11bn that’s given every year, almost half the amount is from people giving £100 or more each month – less than one in ten donors. And last year, 80 individuals made gifts of £1m or more. We need to do more to get the wealthy to give, but the fact is they do give.

9. You don’t need to give to charity if you’ve played the Lottery as they give to good causes.

Reality: 28p of your £1 lottery ticket goes to good causes. This is a great source of support for charities that they couldn’t do without and indeed many charities run their own lotteries. But there’s nothing like giving directly if you want a larger proportion of your £1 to be spent on the cause you support.

10. Charity doesn’t begin at home any more, my money goes somewhere else in Britain or overseas.

Reality: Of the 171,000 charities we track, we estimate 11,000 operate outside the UK. There are relatively few international and national charities. Most have a local focus for their work.

11. Giving to charity wont make us any happier.

Reality: Some research suggests that giving time and money to good causes makes us feel happier...although confusingly, it might be the case that happier people give1 2Although giving to charity isn’t perceived to be a substitute for receiving the two often work well together – which is why ethical gifts or products such as charity Christmas cards are so popular.

12. The British people spend more on cheese than they do on charitable donations. Hmmm. Lovely statistic, but is this claim a myth?3 Recent data suggests we spend four times more on gifts to charity than we do on cheese.4 This all highlights that people are uncertain about what’s expected of us when it comes to giving to charity – with resulting uncertainty when asked what we say or do. But here’s a guide: the mean average gift to charity each month is £11. So if you thinking of making a start, this is what many other people are giving.