By Tom Geoghegan
BBC News Magazine
Christmas charity cards are big business, with more than half a billion sent each year. But are they always as ethical as they seem?
"I'm a charity shop junkie," admits Zenebework Sebuh, while perusing the clothes rails at an Age Concern shop in west London. She buys all her Christmas cards at charity outlets and estimates "at least 50%" of the proceeds go to the good cause.
That's not the case in High Street shops, according to research by the Charities Advisory Trust, which says the average figure among popular retailers is 8%.
"That really surprises me," says Ms Sebuh, a child foster carer. "The big shops should be doing more and give at least half.
"Usually I go to Oxfam or Age Concern to get my cards. It makes you feel better to get them from the charity shops rather than other places."
Putting her money where her mouth is, she buys a pack of 16 cards for 50p, in the knowledge that all the proceeds are going back to Age Concern coffers.
Another customer, Katie Baggs, doesn't follow suit because although she buys her own clothes and some of her Christmas presents from charity shops, she always makes her own festive cards.
Reflecting on the findings of the report, based on spot-checks at branches, she says: "Eight percent is really bad, I would have said at least two-thirds, although I've no idea about the production costs."
Not just for Christmas
Buying cards is not the only way to contribute, of course. But the charity card industry is big business, accounting for an estimated third of the 1.8bn Christmas cards sent each year.
The same goodwill, which for some people is an effort to counter the commercialisation of the season, has spread to buying ethical presents, like a goat for a village in Rwanda or a piece of the Amazonian rainforest.
By law, charity card suppliers have to print on the packet how much of the price goes to the good cause. Most comply although, confusingly, there is no consistency - figures may be with or without VAT, in monetary or percentage terms.
The Charities Advisory Trust wants a statutory 10% minimum level. The difference, up from 8% to 10%, would pay for 70,000 children to go to school in Africa, says director Hilary Blume.
"So when people say 'It's only a Christmas card, what are you going on about?' I say I'm going on about a lot of money going into the pockets of retailers."
In its report, the trust named the John Lewis Partnership as Scrooge of the Year, with an average 8% passed on. A spokesman for the firm said they had no control over how much their suppliers contributed, but they did encourage a minimum of 5% and a preference of 10%.
THE STORES' RESPONSE
WHSmith said that based on their full range of 17 Christmas cards, the average contributed was 13.8%. For Children in Need cards it was 100%
John Lewis said they encouraged 5% and preferred 10%
Liberty said they had no comment to make
Harrods was unable to comment
Marks and Spencer and Boots set a minimum of 10% with their suppliers, which Ms Blume welcomes as an improvement, but still insufficient with manufacturing costs as low as 7p a card. The average price a card is sold for is 71p.
There wasn't always such a disparity. Thirty years ago, charity cards were mainly sold in charity shops or through catalogues, and the few chain stores that stocked the cards gave all the profit to good causes.
But then shops started to make money out of it, says Ms Blume. "The advantage to the charity is no risk, you just got the money. They like to have the name in front of the public, almost regardless of whether it makes them extra money.
The first Christmas card was sent in 1843 by Henry Cole and is now at the V&A museum in London
"If you're the local playgroup you would be thrilled to bits, but if you're Cancer Research UK you should hold out for a better deal. If people don't want to buy other cards that's their business, but if they want the cachet of being the good guy, there should at least be a good guy."
So what should consumers do? Buying cards from charity shops or websites means those outlets get all the profits. For example, card publishers who supply Cancer Research UK cards to popular High Street retailers pay the charity 5-10%, but buying direct from the charity nets it at least 50%.
While the income from Christmas cards is not critical to medium or large organisations, it can be significant for smaller ones, especially because the income is not tied to a project.
The website Card Aid is one of a number of organisations which sells on behalf of charities. It promises that 60% goes to good causes, and has funded cancer research projects and put children in Africa into schools.
The money does make a difference to the needy, says Josephine Siedlecka, editor of Independent Catholic News.
"I always buy hundreds of charity Christmas cards and I always read the small print very carefully and when it says 10% I don't buy it," she says. "I go out of my way to find only 100%, like the Pattaya Orphanage Trust cards, which I buy online.
"I've seen the street children in Thailand and know where the money goes. They help blind, deaf and disabled children. It's run on a shoestring and it's brilliant."
Why not send greetings by phone or email instead, and then give the money you've saved to charity?
Flash Wilson, London UK
Thank you for this excellent information. I always buy charity Xmas cards from various locations but I will certainly ensure in future that I only buy from where the highest percentage is going to the charity.
Barbara Judson, Addlestone, Surrey, UK
I work for the Lord Mayor's Appeal in Bradford a very small local charity raising about £100,000 annually. We produce a Charity Christmas card which is printed on 100% recycled cards, 10 A5 size cards in a pack for £2.99 per pack of which £1.49 comes direct to the charity, if we can do it with a fairly small print run then I don't think that the big boys out there have any excuse, we sell through ourselves and our local Tourist Information shops who do not take any profit for themselves.
While 10% isn't great, surely it's better than nothing; many people don't bother with charity cards at all, perhaps it's them who should be targeted rather than those of us who try to help being told it's not good enough.
Nick, Aberdeen, UK
We were spending so much money on Christmas cards, with so little of the money going to charities, that we now print our cards on our computer, and, even after paper, stamps, envelopes and cartridge costs we had enough money left over to buy chickens from Oxfam unwrapped last year, and a goat this year. We say what we have bought in our cards, why these animals are needed and promote the oxfam site too!
Jane Preston, Poole, Dorset
The whole point of charity Christmas cards is *not* to raise money for charity, but to boost the sender's ego in the mind of the recipient, by proclaiming "Look how wonderful I am -- I gave some money away!" If you are concerned about how much of the money from the sale of the cards goes to charity, then don't send charity cards -- just send a cheap ordinary card, and make a separate donation. Then at least you know how much they're getting.
But, of course, it's more effort that way; and you won't get to feel all superior over the recipient of your card.
Interesting article! Outrageous that as little as 8% from main retailers. When buying Christmas cards, I always have been inclined to buy charitable ones on the understanding that it was going to a good cause. In this case the large chuck of the cause is going to the retailer here. Very disappointed and feel mislead. Hope this changes.
Will be buying direct from the charity shop from now on.
Toan V, London
I think that Christmas cards are more popular to the older generation, even though it's nice to receive a card at the end of the day they are not environmentally friendly and younger people prefer to send emails, text messages and make video/ MMS messages from their mobiles nowadays! I make donations to charities directly to them by the internet using my debit card that way I know it's going to the charity rather than lining retailer's pockets.
JUDGE J, BERKSHIRE
If your article encourages consumers to buy direct from the charity then great. Small charities like ours depend on these revenue streams as well as being an important vehicle for spreading our work and vision. The price of two packs of cards (£5.00) is enough to feed a street child in India for month.
Nigel Studley, Frishta Children's Home, London
I work for a small but growing charity called the Orchid Cancer Appeal, with some help of some kind people in the art and print industry we have managed to have all of our Christmas cards designed and printed free of charge so 100% comes to the charity. We are very proud of this and I think it is awful that big business are trying to come across as compassionate and supportive and then only giving tiny percentages of the card profits to the charity. There is no need for it, they are in fact making money from the goodwill of both the charities and the supporters.
Claire Shearer, London