Exposed: the pitfalls of giving to charity

Britain’s major newspapers have launched appeals for donations to good causes at Christmas. Giving is a traditional feature of the season — but should we focus our attention closer to home?

Layla Richards was diagnosed with an aggressive form of leukaemia at the age of 14 weeks. She underwent chemotherapy and a bone marrow transplant, but her cancer soon returned. Doctors said nothing could be done to save her.

Then her parents were told a highly experimental gene-editing treatment might be able to create immune cells capable of killing the disease. The result, said her chief doctor, was ‘almost a miracle’: although she will need monthly check-ups, she is now well.

The desire to save more children like Layla is behind an appeal in the Independent newspaper, which is asking for donations to Great Ormond Street Hospital in London this Christmas.

Most of Britain’s national papers now ask for money for charitable causes as a seasonal tradition. This year, they are targeting problems including domestic abuse, mental illness and human trafficking. In a request for donations, The Telegraph wrote: ‘Nothing expresses better the bond between the Telegraph and its readers than our annual Christmas charity appeal’.

British people gave an estimated £10.6bn to charity in 2014, but Christmas has a particular association with giving. In medieval times, rich lords often gave their poorer tenants small gifts on Boxing Day, accompanied by a moral message.

More recently, versions of the charity single Do They Know It’s Christmas have — sometimes controversially — raised money to fight famine and Ebola. An initiative called ‘Giving Tuesday’, introduced in the USA in 2012 to encourage donations after Black Friday, has rapidly gained international attention. And charities such as Crisis, who work with homeless people, and the Trussell Trust, who run food banks, have made seasonal appeals for volunteers.

But the appeals come amid criticism that some charities are profligate: an investigation yesterday revealed that 1,080 charity executives in the UK are paid over £100,000 per year. Some charities have also been accused of adopting aggressive fundraising tactics in recent months.

‘Tis the season

Donating and raising money is in the true spirit of Christmas, say some. Whether we are Christians or not, this time of year is a chance to reflect on a message of peace, goodwill and hope. As we enjoy presents, turkey and dubious TV shows, we should also look outwards: to those we rarely encounter, and who are less fortunate than us.

Charity begins at home, others respond: Christmas should be about spending time with our nearest and dearest, especially the most vulnerable among them. However hard they try, charities cannot cover up society’s problems and are inevitably inefficient. Perhaps the truly seasonal thing to do is to invite our grandparents to dinner.

You Decide

  1. Will you be giving money to charity this Christmas? Which cause will you choose if so?
  2. Is it more important to give to charity at Christmas or spend time with your family and friends?


  1. Create an advert for a Christmas charity appeal, on behalf of a cause you support.
  2. If you were going to set up a small charity of your own, what would it do? Think about a cause you care about and then an original way in which you could help to make a difference. Briefly present your idea to your class.

Some People Say...

“There is no reason why we should give more at Christmas than at any other time of the year.”

What do you think?

Q & A

Won’t everyone have a Christmas like mine?
Most people look forward to Christmas but for many it can be a tough time of year — for example, because they are lonely. So it is a chance to consider how fortunate we are and the positive impact we can have on others.
Do I really have to be nice to my family?
Christmas can be very painful for those who have been bereaved. So if you’re lucky enough to have family members still alive who care about you, it’s worth cherishing them — and maybe even showing you are grateful to have them.
Which charity should I donate to? There are so many.
Unfortunately it is not really possible to help every good cause. But you might choose, for example, to target an issue which has affected someone you know or which you feel does not get enough attention.

Word Watch

Research has already helped: 80% of children with leukaemia in the UK now survive. In the 1970s, 90% of them would die.
Last year, the Financial Times made £2m for the International Rescue Committee. Several papers used blogs, celebrity endorsements and fundraising partnerships to publicise appeals which raised over £6m in total.
This was estimated by the Charities Aid Foundation. 79% of people gave or raised money, with the young least likely to do so. Rich people were more likely to donate than the less well-off, but gave smaller proportions of their income.
The first version sold 3.7 million copies, raising £8m. But some say the celebrity-led charitable efforts it inspired have worsened the situation in Ethiopia. The lyrics have also been criticised; one British nurse who survived Ebola said last year’s version displayed ‘cultural ignorance’.
This means they spend too much. Guidelines say charities’ bosses should expect a smaller salary than in the commercial world, as charities get tax breaks which businesses do not.

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