How to give brilliantly to charity, even if …

it ain't what you give

Lots of people want to support good causes but just can’t afford to give money away endlessly, especially in these cash strapped times. That was one of the core realisations that led to The DoNation’s conception.

The other realisation was that for many causes, if we want to tackle the root of the problem then we actually need to do something ourselves, to take personal action rather than just give our money. That’s especially true for things like the environment and health, where our behaviour lies at the root of the problem. And that’s exactly where The DoNation comes in, and that’s where we focus.

But many great charities just need cash. I can’t do much myself to help find a cure for cancer or to provide education and sanitation in Tanzania. The DoNation’s model isn’t going to work wonders there. But if we are too cash strapped to donate money, how else can we support these great charities and causes?

Caroline FiennesOver a cup of tea, we caught up with Caroline Fiennes, author of “It Ain’t What You Give, It’s The Way That You Give It”  (which you can get at a sneaky discount – see below) to hear her thoughts. She is an award-winning charity CEO and has advised loads of people and companies on supporting charities, so is a wealth of ideas…

If I don’t have much money, are there still ways that I can help charities?

You betcha. You can rustle up money from thin air. One trick is to generate money for charity when you’re online. Searches via EveryClick make a charitable donation for every search made. For online shoppers, various portals make donations for every purchase: and generate donations for purchases from retailers including John Lewis, Mothercare, Apple, Wallis, Fat Face, Dell and LateRooms.

One of my favourite examples is from Starfish, a charity supporting HIV/AIDS orphans in South Africa. It is supported by a lot of young-ish South African professionals living in Britain. They raised a good deal of money by hosting dinner parties at home and asking each guest to donate the money they would have spent if the party had been in a restaurant. Genius: Starfish tapped into ‘personal entertainment’ budgets which hadn’t been earmarked for charity.

What about giving actual things?

Yes. We all know about taking old clothes to charity shops, but you can donate almost anything. These are some quirky examples:

  • Cars: Several organisations will collect an unwanted car and turn it into money for charity through
  • Hotel shampoo: I know some business people who travel constantly and give the complimentary toiletries from hotels to a domestic violence refuge. For people on the run from a violent partner, it’s nice if somebody’s provided some decent shampoo.
  • Your hair! If you have more than seven inches of hair cut off, take it home and donate it to make wigs for people who’ve lost hair due to medical treatments.

But do check with the charity first. People donate real junk, so much so that aid agencies run an annual competition for Stuff We Don’t Want (#SWEDOW). Past winners have included second-hand knickers(!), and the 2.4 million Pop-Tarts® airdropped onto Afghanistan by the US government in 2002. Far from amusing tales, these items create costs for charities because they need storing and sorting, and simply become a hindrance. It’s not difficult to check that a charity needs an item before sending it.

OK, suppose I do have a bit of money. What is the best thing to do then?

Well one good rule is to prevent the bankers gobbling it all. Charities (normally) pay bank charges just like any business does for processing cheques, payments and credit card transactions. So if you divide your (say) £50 into 50 donations of £1 each, you’ll generate 50 sets of bank charges which may consume the whole lot. Better to give fewer but larger gifts.

That is also true if you’re giving £50m in fact.

I don’t suppose I’ll have a spare £50m any time soon, but how should I give it if I do?

First, focus on a few issues. For example even the massive Gates foundation only has three areas of focus. It’s hard to do umpteen things really well. Second, take risks – fund things which might haven’t been proven yet and which could influence the behaviour of many organisations, such as governments or companies. Those types of work are typically at the level of a system and are rather removed from ‘the action’ but have more impact.

A great example is Wellcome Trust’s bankrolling of the human genome project in order to ensure that the ‘code for human DNA’ remained freely available after its discovery: that didn’t of itself produce any cures or drugs, but over time will influence many companies and medical practices and cures.

And lastly, don’t just copy other donors. It’s hard for donors to know whether they’re doing a good job, so the fact that they’re rich or famous or noisy (or even just that they’re confident) is no indication. You’ll have to do your own homework to find out what really works.

Caroline Fiennes is the director of Giving Evidence, and author of It Ain’t What You Give, It’s The Way That You Give It, a guide to effective charitable donations which you can get at a discount from

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