Jeff Salway: Choose charity money wisely

IF I gave a quid to charity for every suburban garden I’ve seen online in the past week I’d be digging very deep into my pockets by now.

Donald Trump undergoes the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge. Picture: Contributed

At first I thought I’d stumbled across a particularly benign hostage video. Then I realised that seemingly most of my friends and family were at it – being filmed in their back yard being drenched by a bucket of ice water, to raise money for the ALS charity.

I discovered two things. The first is the astonishing uniformity of garden furniture in this country.

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The second is that while the intention is invariably good, there remains a potentially damaging naivete around charity giving.

By last Tuesday the ice bucket challenge, launched just a few weeks ago in the US, had raised $88.5 million (£53.3m) for the ALS. The American charity uses donations to fund research into Lou Gehrig’s disease, better known here as motor neurone disease.

But as blogger Felix Salmon pointed out last week, giving to “a disease-specific charity is a very odd, and peculiarly ineffective, way of spending your philanthropic dollar”. Part of the problem, he said, is that with 30 years of global research taking us no closer to a cure, there’s little to suggest that the additional funds will make a substantial difference.

So now this relatively niche charity has a mountain of cash and little idea as to how it’s going to spend it.

It’s a problem that any charity would love to have. But it also underlines the pitfalls that lie in giving to charity. The millions of people that have given generously to the ALS could have donated their cash much more effectively, not least in being more selective.

The chances are that you’re regularly asked to sponsor a friend, colleague or family member to undertake some form of charity challenge, typically being directed to a donation services website. The biggest challenge of the lot may simply be working out which charities spend your donations most efficiently, which are most closely aligned with your beliefs and which are best at their work.

The choices extend to the way in which you donate, not least because most online charity giving sites take their own slice of the pie.

Justgiving received flak this year when it was reported to be taking up to £190,000 from the millions raised by Stephen Sutton, the late teenage cancer sufferer. In the event it earned fees of £45,000 from some £2.7m donated to Sutton through the site.

The site makes money by taking 5 per cent from each donation, bumping it up by including the additional gift aid when working out the donation size, according to a recent Which? survey.

Virgin Money Giving takes 2 per cent from donations (excluding gift aid), 16p per debit card payment and charges each charity a start-up fee of £100 plus VAT. The cheapest is BT’s MyDonate service, which has no registration fee or admin deductions and charges 15p per debit card transaction.

I wasn’t aware of the differences in the charges until I embarked on my own fundraising challenge this year. Only after did I work out that my chosen charity – one that needs every penny raised – would have made some valuable extra cash if I’d been more circumspect in selecting the services I used.

The ALS challenge has shown again how generous and public-spirited we can be. But it also reminds us that we should use our money more effectively in supporting the causes that need it most.