No money? Here’s how you can still make a difference to charity in a recession

This article first appeared in the Daily Mail Online.

In a recession, more people turn to charities for support, precisely when donations are harder for charities to find. But there are tricks we can all use to make our donations go further, to give ‘things’ which are more useful than they seem, and to rustle up money for charities from thin air.

Don’t let the banks gobble your donations

Just like any business, charities (normally) pay bank charges for processing cheques, payments and credit card transactions. So if you divide your £50 into 50 donations of £1 each, you’ll generate 50 sets of bank charges which may consume the whole lot.

Better to give fewer but larger gifts. That is also true if you’re giving £50m in fact.

Be a flexible friend

Sometimes donors stipulate that their money must be used to hire a teacher, or in Northern Ireland, or within six months. This makes charities’ jobs extremely hard – without actually adding any benefit to anybody – because it denies them the flexibility to respond to change in need, or to take new opportunities.

Imagine a charity in Sri Lanka which has money ‘restricted’ to improving education. Then the tsunami hits, destroying homes, roads, livelihoods. Suddenly, education isn’t the hugest issue. Money ‘restricted’ to education is then pretty useless, and getting donors to ‘un-restrict’ it takes time, which in those situations means lives.

The Liberian activist Leymah Gbowee thanks ‘unrestricted’ money for her success in ending the civil war, for which she shared the Nobel Peace Prize last year. It gave her the flexibility to do whatever the rapidly-changing situation required: at one point, linking arms and blocking the doors of a hotel room in Accra in neighbouring Ghana until the Liberian politicians inside had made a deal.

Unrestricted money is so much more useful that charities say they’d rather have £100 of flexible money than £145 of restricted money. Put that another way, donors can give 50 per cent more value at no extra cost just by making money flexible.

Goat giftYou don’t have to be a big donor to do this. If you ‘buy a goat’ from Oxfam or other ‘gifts’ from charities, there’s usually a box somewhere that you tick to enable the charity to use the money in a different way if it needs to. You effectively get an extra half-a-goat for free. Bargain.

Get Her Majesty to chip in 

If you pay UK tax, the charity can add a load of extra cash to your donation: a quarter if you’re a basic-rate payer, or a whopping two-thirds if you’re a higher-rate tax payer. All you have to do is complete a little form which the charity will almost certainly have if you ask.

Charities can even get the tax back on donations of goods to charity shops. Again, just ask for the form.

Rustling up money from thin air

Sometimes its possible to divert money you would normally have to spend on other things towards charitable causes and still achieve your desired outcome.

Fred Mulder, who founded The Funding Network (a Dragons’ Den for charities), was in a dispute with his neighbours in London over access to some land that he owned. There was every chance that he and they would all hire expensive lawyers to resolve it.

Instead, Fred offered a compromise. He offered to give his neighbours perpetual access if they each (Fred included) donated £25,000 towards education in Zambia. This move generated over £100,000 for charitable work – none of which had previously been designated for charity.

And furthermore, it’s improved his relationship with the neighbours – which a legal fight would never have done – because they have a shared endeavour. Clever, isn’t it?

On a different scale, the Starfish charity helps HIV/AIDS orphans in South Africa. It is supported by a lot of young-ish South African professionals living in Britain. They raised a good deal of money by hosting dinner parties at home and asking each guest to donate the money they would have spent if the party had been in a restaurant.

It’s genius – Starfish has tapped into people’s ‘personal entertainment’ budget that they would normally not consider using for charity.

You can even generate money for charity by being online. Searches via charity search engine EveryClick make a donation for every term you search on. For online shoppers, various portals make donations for every purchase: easyfundraising.org.uk and TheGivingMachine.co.ukgenerate donations for purchases from retailers including John Lewis, Mothercare, Apple, Wallis, Fat Face, Dell and LateRooms.

Giving things

We all know about taking old clothes to charity shops, but you can donate almost anything. These are some quirky examples:

Cars – Several organisations will collect an unwanted car and turn it into money for charity through www.giveacar.co.uk.

Hotel shampoo – I know some business people who travel constantly and give the complimentary toiletries from hotels to a domestic violence refuge. For people on the run from a violent partner, it’s nice if somebody’s provided some decent shampoo.

Long hairYour hair! – If you have more than seven inches of hair cut off, take it home and donate it to make wigs for people who’ve lost hair due to medical treatments, like the Little Princess Trust.

But do check with the charity first. People donate real junk, so much so that aid agencies run an annual competition for Stuff We Don’t Want (#SWEDOW). Past winners have included second-hand knickers(!), and the 2.4million Pop-Tarts airdropped onto Afghanistan by the US government in 2002.

Far from providing amusing tales, these items create costs for charities because they need storing and sorting, and simply become a hindrance. It’s not difficult to check that a charity needs an item before sending it.

The biggest factor in what your donations achieve isn’t whether you’re rich. It ain’t even what you give: it’s the way that you give it.

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