Dame Hilary Blume: Do Christmas cards do as much for charity as you think?

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High street stores may claim to be doing their bit for charity with Christmas card but, as Dame Hilary Blume explains, the actual benefits to good causes can be limited

If it were a meat pie with less than ten per cent meat, you could not call it a meat pie. Chocolate bars have to have a minimum cocoa content by law or they have to be described as something else.

But when it comes to charity Christmas cards the rules don’t apply.

The problem is that people think they are buying a charity card, but very little money actually goes to the good cause. The retailers have stolen the charity Christmas market away from the charities.

Each year the Charities Advisory Trust (CAT) surveys high street retailers, to see who is using charity to help boost sales, but actually giving very little to charity. This year, in addition, we surveyed online personalised charity Christmas card companies.

Christmas cards used to be an important way of earning money for charities. People bought charity cards to show their friends that they were caring, decent people. Realising that it was a profitable market, high street retailers decided to muscle in on the charity card market as a way to boost their sales. With no legislation to control the amount going to charity, companies can give as little as two per cent to charity and still label the card as a charity card.

Years of campaigning by CAT has successfully pushed the charity donation to a minimum of ten per cent for many cards on the high street, while some such as John Lewis, Paperchase and Debenhams are giving more.

But three-for-two offers at Next and Marks & Spencer reduce the actual amount to charity. How appropriate is it to discount charity? Do you tell a hungry child in Africa they can’t eat on every third day because someone in the UK wanted to save money?

This year 41.6 per cent of the cards surveyed were produced in China. This makes the card cheaper to produce, but costs jobs in the UK. It is extraordinary that UK charities do not make any effort to see that cards are printed in the UK, thus protecting jobs and the environment.

The wide availability of charity cards on the high street has undercut sales of cards by charities themselves (which give more to the charities) and is forcing them out of the market – for example Water Aid, which no longer offers a range of cards but rather relies on licensing deals.

While the high street seems to be giving more to charity this year sales of personalised charity cards sold on the internet show amounts as low as 1.1 per cent to charity. We surveyed 40 online companies offering “bespoke” cards with a charity element. More than two thirds (67.5 per cent) of the online card publishers surveyed give less than five per cent to charity.

Startlingly, over a quarter (27.5 per cent) give less than two per cent.

It was virtually impossible to work out how much, as a percentage, went to charity, unless you had an A-level in arithmetic and a lot of spare time.

Many publishers give a flat rate amount – 10p or 5p a card, but they had so many extras for printing logos, greetings, colour printing, etc that the total cost was high, and the percentage to charity very low.

This year we gave our Scrooge Award to CCA Occasions, an online company offering personalised Christmas cards. Despite offering 10p per card donation the cards can costs up to £9.35 each (including additional charges such as artwork, personalised envelopes and foil printing) resulting in a donation to charity of 1.1 per cent. The maximum donation was still only 13.9 per cent.

Card Aid, an initiative of CAT, was developed to provide an outlet for charities to sell their Christmas cards to a wider public. It works to ensure charities maximise their income from Christmas cards. Between 40 and 60 per cent of the cost of the cards go to charity. Card Aid cards can be bought online, or look out for them in Card Aid shops.

CAT also runs other organizations such as The Good Gifts Catalogue (www.goodgifts.co.uk). There are more than 200 gifts, helping people at home and abroad.

With the Good Gifts Catalogue you know exactly what your money will be spent on. The aim is to encourage people to give to charity: to tap into the gift market, as a new stream of funding and perhaps even more to show people they can have fun, and help, at quite a low cost.

My message to companies is that if you are going to exploit goodwill towards charity to boost your sales, at least be charitable yourself.

Dame Hilary Blume is director of the Charities Advisory Trust