Christmas: A time of good cheer (or maybe not!)

1st December by Andrew Barton

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Andrew Barton is one of the UK’s most respected fundraisers who has an enviable track record in the individual giving/mass marketing space working for many leading INGOs including Oxfam and World Vision before setting up his own consultancy practice.

Andrew wrote a brilliant blog earlier this year for AAW Insight about how charities and not for profits could tap into faith based giving through the careful use of language and approach. With Advent and the countdown to Christmas now underway, we asked Andrew to write for us again. Here he maps the important dates in the calendar for different faiths and how secular charities might use the Christmas season much more effectively to fundraise and engage.

Two candles

Many of us working in fundraising have been busily working away at Christmas campaigns. But is Christmas all that it’s cracked up to be from a charity perspective?

The Bank of England reckons that the average household spends £740 more in December than in any other month of the year. But the national data also suggests that our average increased spend on alcohol is 17 times that of increased charitable donations.

CAF Giving surveys in recent years regularly show around 37% of individuals giving in December compared with 32-33% across the year as a whole. That’s a definite uplift but perhaps less than I would have expected. Maybe I’m being too nostalgic thinking about all that carol singing with the Salvation Army band outside my local supermarket, or the queue waiting to get into our local Christingle service on Christmas Eve!

But who is giving? Does Christmas really bring new givers into the market or is it just an excellent prompt for the charitably oriented?

There’s no definitive data on the subject but my strong hypothesis is that Christmas is more a prompt for the charitably oriented.  Woods Valldata’s excellent surveys would certainly support that view. For example, direct mail response rates over the period November 2020-January 2021 were 17.4% (as compared to the average of 12.4% for the year as a whole. (Interestingly, average gift was virtually unchanged).

Unfortunately, we don’t have any data for the charitable giving habits of active Christians who attend church on a regular basis. That sounds like a great research project for a Philanthropy Studies student !

The contrast with the huge uplift in giving by Muslims during Ramadan couldn’t be starker. Best estimates are that 70%+ of Muslim Zakat giving is made during Ramadan with a big peak towards the end of Ramadan. Certainly, many smaller Muslim charities will generate over 70% of their income during Ramadan.

So, what’s going on here?

There’s a much stronger emphasis on giving as an obligation in Islam. Zakat is one of the five pillars of Islam, where 2.5% of one's wealth is compulsory to be given as Zakat per Islamic calendar year, provided that the wealth is beyond the threshold limit, called Nisab.

Within Islam, Ramadan is very much the focal point for giving with a particular focus on  Laylat at Qadr (the night of power). Muslims believe that giving to charity and being charitable will mean that God in-turn would reward them. Giving in Ramadan is a win-win.  

Jewish Tzedakah is commanded by the Torah and not voluntary. Jews give 10% of their finances under Tzedakah out of "righteousness" and "justice" rather than benevolence, generosity, or charitableness.  Tzedakah is all year round giving. There are increases in giving around the festivals of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, but nothing like the big leap during Ramadan.

Christian tithing is derived from Tzedakah, and Biblical teaching is clear about the need for generosity. Some church traditions do teach tithing especially in more conservative evangelical and Pentecostal traditions. Working with some Christian charities I will often see unusually large gifts which turn out to be a tithe of an inheritance. Gospel-hearted donors. However, many church-going Christians don’t tithe. And many who will self-identify as Christian, but are inactive in their faith, may not give that differently to the national norm.  

Within Christianity, Christmas isn’t the same “magnet” for giving that Ramadan is for Muslims.  In some traditions, Lent, Easter and Harvest are also important moments for giving and this is reflected in charity fundraising. At CAFOD, for example, there will be a particular focus on Lent and Harvest Appeals.

So how might secular charities tap into the Christmas season even more effectively?

Knowing your audience, and being able to tailor for different identities is crucial.  It certainly doesn’t have to be for a Christian Identity.

Last year the RNLI did a brilliant job with their Christmas Appeal. They had caught the mood of the country and the extra resonance that family was having for many during Coronavirus.

The whole story was written from the perspective a lifeboat volunteer’s dad and his hope for seeing his son return safe. The PS on the door drop said it all: “When I think ‘that’s my boy’, I say a word of thanks for the kind-hearted people who donate and bring him home safe from stormy nights at sea. Merry Christmas to you and yours- enjoy your precious time together.”

Not a shepherd or a stable in sight. Just the warm glow of Christmas being a time for family and a gentle pointer to appeal to kindness at this time of year.

Rescuing lives at sea doesn’t have a specific Christmas resonance. Whereas homelessness does have a poignancy in the Christmas story. After all, Jesus was born in the poverty of a stable block with no room at the inn. 

The Salvation Army has had a variety of creative treatments some of which do tap into Christian identity (even if it’s just a reciprocal Christmas card with a picture of the Salvation Army band). Crisis taps less explicitly into that identity. But the “Fill a Space, Reserve a place” campaign in past years clearly tapped into the contrast between the homeless and the broader culture of Christmas festive overindulgence.

Other organisations tap even more effectively into the trappings of a secular Christmas. Menstrual inequality doesn’t particularly strike as a Christmas cause. But one small organisation - Bloody Good Period – has tapped into secular aspects of the Festival to fund menstrual products for asylum seekers.

Bloody Good Period do a brilliant job of embracing a full range of Christmas humour to bring the cause to life. In asking supporters “Periods aren’t just for Christmas, why not make this a monthly thing”, they were evoking the long-standing Dogs Trust campaign “A dog is for life not just for Christmas.”  Brilliant stuff.

So, as you design your next Christmas campaign, think hard about audience and about their connection with Christmas.  Does your cause have a real – and very obvious -resonance with the Christmas narrative? Or do you need to dial that down and focus on making a connection with things that are important to your audience at the festive time. Take time to really think about it.

Andrew Barton

 

If you’d like to talk further about your fundraising strategies in faith-based giving, especially in the multi-layered Christian space, then please get in touch at andrewbarton.consulting@gmail.com.

Many thanks to Adil Husseini and Ruth Dwight for additional input on Muslim and Jewish giving traditions.

Andrew will be speaking at AAW’s Inter Faith Giving seminar in February 2022. If you’d like to express interest in this event, please contact Jane at jane@aawpartnership.com