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The season of goodwill

Sarah Smith

Charities might rightly feel that they have had a tough year. First the recession which many charities claim hit their donations. Then, the announcement of public spending cuts which will affect thousands of charities which rely on government funding.

The festive season should therefore bring a brief respite and provide a temporary boost to charity incomes as this is the time of year when people really do dig a little deeper and give more to charity than during the rest of the year. The chart below shows average weekly household donations to charity for each month in the year – there is a spike in march/april, coinciding with the end of the tax year, but a greater spike in December. Santa, it appears, has a greater effect on giving than the tax man. These averages are for households that actually give to charity; the proportion of households who give is also slightly higher in December than at other times of year, but it is the amounts that people give that show the biggest increase at Christmas. The average weekly amount given is nearly £12 in December – more than twice the average amount over the preceding three months.

Source: Living Costs and Food Survey, 2008

It is hard to say exactly what accounts for the festive increase – other than it being the season of goodwill to all men. Some of it may be religiously motivated; the evidence shows that religion is strongly associated with charitable giving and that people who are religious are more likely to give to charity and to give more. Yet as religiosity has declined in the UK over the past thirty years, Christmas giving has remained high and, if anything ,has increased over time. In 2008 (which is the latest year for which we have data) giving in December was 60 per cent higher than the average over the rest of the year; thirty years ago (over the decade 1978-88) it was roughly 16 per cent higher.

As part of the Big Society, the government is keen to encourage charitable giving. Research that we carried out on behalf of HM Treasury showed that tax incentives are not particularly effective at encouraging people to give more. The majority of people do not respond to changes in tax incentives by changing how much they give, although this does mean that Gift Aid style incentives that allow the charities to claim back the tax paid on donations can help to boost charities incomes (more than rebate-style incentives which rely on donors to adjust their giving). Understanding the December effect could give insights into what motivates people to give and be used to design more effective policies. As charities enter 2011 facing up to the reality of cutbacks in public spending both they and the government will be keen to ensure that higher giving is not just for Christmas.

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