Charity gifts hit by recession


CHARITABLE CHRISTMAS GIFTS:Giving a goat or a sheep as a Christmas gift was an idea that took off during the boom but as the recession bites, charities are seeing this massive source of revenue dry up

THIS CHRISTMAS will probably be a more restrained affair for most of us, with the wanton excesses of the boom years likely to be replaced by a new frugality, as people with less to spend decide to spend more wisely.

While people are scaling back on presents, they are also scaling back on the amounts they give to charity and the charitable presents that became so popular during the boom years. Many organisations are expecting to raise as much as 40 per cent less this Christmas than they did at the height of the boom.

People have come to regard charitable gifts as something of a luxury, which is understandable if somewhat ironic, when you consider how far removed from luxury the ultimate recipients of the gifts are.

When it comes to value for money and choosing presents which actually make a difference to people’s lives, it is hard to top clean running water or a goat that will keep a family alive for the year ahead.

Bóthar has been bringing Irish dairy cattle to the developing world since the early 1990s, and its pure-bred beasts are currently to be found grazing in Malawi, Lebanon, Albania and Kosovo amongst many other countries.

An Irish dairy cow can produce as much as 20 times more milk than a Ugandan-born one, which explains their price tag of €1,800. In case you are put off by the thought of such a hefty price – and let’s face it there’s not many of us who could rise to such largesse at present – shares in the beasts can be bought for as little as €40.

It is not just cows that the charity gives to families and communities in the developing world. Goats, chickens and water buffalo are also very popular. Bóthar has seen its revenue fall by over 40 per cent in the past three years. Over the Christmas periods between 2005 and 2007, Bóthar raised over €3 million each year. It fell to €2.5 million in 2008 and by a further €500,000 last year.

Peter Ireton, Bóthar’s chief executive, is hoping to match last year’s figure this Christmas. “These are tough times for everyone and charity giving is seen as a luxury. Having said that, people are still very generous,” he says.

“It has been a real shock to be sitting in my seat as the recession has taken hold and to watch the amounts coming in decline so sharply,” he says. “But I am getting used to it.” The charity has responded to the decline in donations through the traditional routes by launching alternative ways of raising revenue. Last week, it sold Santa hats to Munster rugby fans in Thomond Park and raised thousands of euro.

The biggest seller for Bóthar is the dairy goat. “It wins out time and time again,” he says. The cost of buying the goat, transporting it to a family and then training and supervising that family as they get to know their goat is €300. It is a lot, certainly, but it is a gift that keeps on giving. A dairy goat can live for 10 years and will normally have at least one kid and more frequently twins, each year from the age of two. The breeding programme is managed by Bóthar staff on the ground.

Sending animals from Ireland is only about 15 per cent of what Bóthar does. It ships dairy cows and goats as well as pigs to families overseas. The 15 other species it deals in are sourced in the countries where they have people on the ground. Ireton says the most common animal they give as a gift is the water buffalo, “a truly fabulous animal”.

“The gift of an animal is particularly useful to communities who have been ravaged by HIV,” he says. “People with HIV lose their strength. What they can do, even in a weakened state, is look after the animals – which are known as exotics – and this helps them feel like they are contributing more to their society. The food – milk and eggs in particular – is also essential for them to provide nutrition which would otherwise be lacking.”

Oxfam Ireland Unwrapped is another big player in the charitable Christmas gift market. It has an innovative website – – and hopes to raise in the region of €500,000 this year, with the majority of the cash coming in the run-up to Christmas.

While the deadline for buying online from most commercially-driven retailers has passed, Oxfam Ireland says it will continue processing orders through its Unwrapped site right up until Christmas. It can cut it so fine because the presents on offer are not being posted to your friends or family, but being sent to the developing world.

A flock of chicks is €13, a goat can be had for €38, while a set of school books is €18. The presents range in price from €7 for life-saving buckets for drinking water, to a decent water supply for an entire community for €3,120.

Once you buy the gift, you are directed to Oxfam’s e-card section where you can pick a card and enter a message. The recipient gets the e-card straight away by e-mail, explaining what you have bought them, and an actual card and fridge magnet comes later in the regular post. The charity is also offering fair trade token gifts, colouring pencils from Tanzania, to act as inexpensive stocking fillers.

Cora O’Liathain from the charity says its Oxfam Unwrapped service saw growth each year for the first six years, “but last year we saw a decline and attribute that to the recession. Our challenge is to see if we can maintain it now.”

“We have a big gift range made up of 33 things, with prices from €7 to over €3,000. We recognise that things are tighter this year which is why we wanted to make sure there were items for all budgets,” she says.

“Every gift in the catalogue is a real item but if we sell more goats than are required then we use the excess to buy a similar type of gift like a flock of chicks. Last year, we didn’t sell goats because there was no need for them, so we sold veterinary care for goats instead.”

The most expensive item Oxfam Ireland is selling is water for a whole community. It costs €3,120. Another popular item is the super-granny. A super-granny deal provides support from a grandmother in the developing so they can look after children who have lost their parents to AIDS. It costs just €59 and, says Cora, is bought by parents on behalf of their children who can give them to their Irish grannies.

“Despite the hard times we have here, things are much harder in places like South Africa and Tanzania. People are looking for meaningful gifts and are asking if their granny really needs a new pair of slippers.”

Card sharks

Most Christmas cards we now send help to raise money for charities, but it really matters what card you buy and where you but it.

Some charities produce their own cards and sell them in their shops or online. Others sell them through regular retailers, while others simply license their name - and the goodwill that goes with it - to printers seeking to maximise their sales by selling to altruistic shoppers.

Typically, charity cards bought in major retailers do not raise a lot of cash for the charities whose names are emblazoned on them. As little as 10 per cent of the sale price of some Christmas cards actually goes to the good cause.

If a card is bought directly from the charity, closer to 80 per cent of the total price goes to the charity.