Celebrated journalist Dame Esther Rantzen is a strong advocate for the vulnerable, having founded the charities Childline and Silver Line
As the Christmas commercials compete to bring tears to our eyes and cash to their wallets, and twinkling decorations go up in our pubs and town squares, it’s time for us to think about handing out a bit of joy ourselves.
We do this only by choosing the cards and gift-wrapped presents for our nearest and dearest, which will probably have a short shelf life and indeed may not last until New Year, but with donations to charity, which hopefully go much further and last a lot longer.
But which good cause to choose and how to give?
Not long ago, many of us felt we were being bullied into giving, with major scandals about unscrupulous call centres cold-calling and taking advantage of vulnerable older people.
The rules about charity fundraising have tightened up a great deal since then. Consent is now crucial, and charities need to provide evidence in advance that we don’t mind being asked for money.
So now there are far fewer “chuggers” around, those gangs in hi-vis vests who used to mug us for charity.
Most pavements have been cleansed of them. There are also fewer of the bin bags left on our doorsteps for unwanted clothes, or the door-to-door tin rattlers ringing our doorbells – although collecting tins don’t rattle much anymore.
It’s quite difficult to find a charity that will accept coins these days, most of them snootily expect donations by credit cards.
You may already have your own favourite charities, most of us do. However, at Christmas it’s nice to spread the love a bit, isn’t it? But where?
There is guidance around, for instance, newspaper appeals, like the current Telegraph appeal for four carefully selected charities, are more crucial than ever. The Silver Line was lucky enough to have been selected a few years ago, so as founder and president I know firsthand what a huge difference it made.
Not un-challenging for the chosen charities, the Telegraph rightly conduct a very thorough “due diligence” investigation, and the Silver Line team worked hard to provide evidence that the helpline really does transform the lives of isolated older people.
I sat in the Telegraph office myself taking some of the calls from readers donating money, so I was able to thank them. Their generosity was inspiring.
Of course at different times of year there are other traditions, like the London Marathon, and the Macmillan Coffee Mornings, and Children in Need, which turn giving into an event, as they say, “putting the fun into fundraising”.
Raising money is a huge challenge, especially when there’s a cost of living crisis. So I understand why so many charities clamour for our attention.
And since Christmas is the best time for charities to make new friends, now is the time that they reach out to us when we are sitting comfortably at home, filling our post boxes with leaflets and TV breaks with pleas for the funding they desperately need.
And it works. Or at least it did for me, especially the charities working with children.
The heartbreaking films of children who cannot smile without an operation to repair their lips, or showing the horrifying plight of children who are the innocent victims of war – they found me when I was relaxing between rounds of my favourite television quizzes, and I signed up for regular donations.
And I’m glad I did. You may feel the same watching films of suffering donkeys, or the terrible cruelty meted out to captive bears. Whatever you respond to, it does comfort us a bit to know that a small regular donation can make a real difference.
I have made a few rules for myself, which I’m happy to pass on, in case they are helpful. Personally I divide my giving between big overarching charities, and small niche organisations.
I also prioritise which areas particularly touch me emotionally, as I have said, for me it’s children and older people.
It helps if you have first-hand knowledge that it’s a well-run organisation, and the money will go to the service they provide. But that doesn’t explain why I’ve just given to Cats Protection.
I’ve never been a cat person, I’ve always thought they are wildlife assassins. Until Boots, a neighbour’s cat, arrived in my garden, desperately hungry after his owners moved away.
It has taken two years, but Boots has now overcome my old antipathy. He is a black and white “tuxedo cat”, and as he has slowly come to trust me and my daughter, we have fallen in love with him.
Which may be why I was particularly vulnerable when I was watching television and a commercial arrived on the screen for a service I never knew existed, a fostering service run by Cats Protection for animals belonging to families who are escaping domestic abuse. It got me, and I texted them a donation there and then.
And I’m fine with that. In a way it was a donation in gratitude for the pleasure Boots is giving us and a recognition that it’s the right time of year to give to causes I’ve never considered before. It makes this Christmas just that little bit brighter. And if it happens to you, I hope you will feel the same.
How much are you spending this Christmas?