Charities in need

As tonight’s Children in Need appeal kicks off, millions of us will be reaching for the phone to give what we can to this fantastic cause. But while high-profile appeals like Children in Need still achieve strong public support, many charities around the country are finding themselves in greater need than ever before.

This week, new research showed that public donations to charity had dropped by 20% in the last year, as fewer people gave and those who did made smaller donations. For charities and the people they help, this news could not come at a worse time. Many have already been hit by a double-whammy of government cuts and rising costs, at the very time that more people are coming through their doors in need of help.

This is an understandable result of the tough economic times we live in. Fewer of us feel we can spare the money we used to for good causes.

Volunteers can pick up some of the slack, but not all of it. Most charities need donations to pay staff and do their vital – in some cases life-saving – work. Whether it’s pioneering medical research, preventing child abuse, supporting soldiers’ families, or protecting our national heritage – Britain’s charities do an enormous amount of good work at home and abroad.

Our views about who should help people in need have changed over time. In the Victorian era industrialists like Cadbury who built houses for their workers were lauded. Wealthy businessmen like the Scottish steel magnate Andrew Carnegie gave millions to support education, building lavish libraries and universities. The 20th Century saw the introduction of the welfare state, intended as a safety net for everyone provided by the government. Now, the latest research shows that despite a decade of Labour government there is less public appetite than ever for governments to ‘redistribute’ money from rich to poor.

But you don’t have to be wealthy to be a philanthropist – it’s a word that can and should apply to any of us. I believe that altruism is hard-wired into us as humans. The term philanthropist comes from Greek, and means ‘the love of humanity’.  When we see a problem most of us have an instinctive desire to help. Of course, when times are tough, it’s harder to spare money for the causes we care about. But there is still much that those of us of more modest means can do. With all the bad news about the economy, living standards and the risk that our own children’s prospects may be worse in the future than they are today, I believe we must not lose sight of the difference we can all make by giving to others – and giving to charities and good causes when we can.

The most effective way to give to charity is to sign up to give regularly, no matter how little the amount. This helps charities plan for the future by knowing how much income they will have. It’s also important to use Gift Aid, the government scheme that tops up your donation by giving the charity the amount of income tax you would have paid on the amount you donated – this can add 25% to your donation.

But philanthropy needn’t be just about giving money. The love of humanity can be expressed in other ways. We all undertake altruistic acts of some kind every day – from giving up a seat on the bus to giving blood – because they help create the sort of society we want to live in.

Volunteering, giving your time, can be just as valuable to many charities as giving your money and sometimes more so. Charities near where you live will be grateful for your help, and volunteering can be immensely rewarding.

Donating unwanted goods, such as clothes or furniture, to charity shops who can sell them to raise funds for their services, or to charities who can distribute them to people who need them, remains a valuable way of giving.

Some argue that ‘consumer activism’ – buying products from companies which you believe act with integrity and avoiding companies whose actions you don’t approve of, is a new form of philanthropy.

Crucially though, whatever you think about different types of philanthropy – it comes down to a personal choice. It is our free will to decide whether we will donate – whether money, time, or unwanted items – and to which charities or causes.

I hope that Children in Need is a terrific success this evening and that people will take the time to think again about giving and what part they can play. Charities right up and down the country are struggling and we risk losing their services at our peril. So if you can give, please give generously to a cause that is close to your heart. And even if you can’t give right now, please consider showing your support by signing up to our new campaign – Back Britain’s Charities.

NCVO Policy Team’s blog

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Charlotte Ravenscroft was NCVO’s head of policy and public services. Charlotte’s wrote about funding, public service delivery, and strengthening the evidence base for voluntary action. She has also worked at the Big Lottery Fund and the Department for Education.

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