How to do good at Christmas

Volunteer or donate to help those less fortunate

Christmas is a time for exchanging gifts, sharing food and spending time with family. But there are many who are less fortunate and less able to celebrate, from those sleeping rough over the festive period to elderly people living alone.

If you want to do some good this Christmas, by donating your time or money, we've a long list of ways you can help out those in need.

In this guide

Give charity gifts

Too many people do tit-for-tat giving at Christmas. The usual result? Unwanted tat. Instead, give a gift to charity in someone's name – then you know your money is actually paying for something useful. 

From helping to save lives with vital vaccines to buying livestock for villagers, this is our rundown of charity gifts, including how much of the donation goes to good causes. All the organisations below offer a customisable card or gift card that'll tell the recipient what you've paid for on their behalf.

If you've spotted something else we should include, let us know in the Charity gifts forum thread.

Will my money definitely fund the gift I choose?

Charities have taken to selling specific charity gifts as a way of making donations more tangible. Yet whether you'll actually give the item you've chosen depends on the charity – some will simply allocate the money to a related area, or spend it wherever it's most needed. We've explained below what each charity's policy is.

Alternatively, you can just make a regular donation. If you want to give a direct donation to charity on somebody else's behalf, be sure to use Gift Aid – see our Charity Giving guide for the full lowdown.

Unicef – eg, polio vaccines for 100 kids,£14.50

Save and change lives in communities around the world

Types of gifts: Polio vaccines for 100 children for £14.50, deliver a baby for £30 (provides midwifery equipment and medicines for a safe birth), or help provide winter clothing for a Syrian child for £35.

What does the charity get? Your donation provides the gift selected and covers the gift card costs, order processing, etc. Occasionally, a substitute could be made based on need, such as measles vaccines instead of polio.

Link: Unicef Inspired Gifts

Macmillan – eg, an hour of care, £20

Helps provide care for patients with cancer

Types of gifts: An hour of care for £20, fund a Macmillan information centre for an hour for £50 or donate £5 for 14 copies of Macmillan's cancer guide.

What does the charity get? 100% of what you give goes to the cause, but it isn't restricted to the gift chosen – so the money goes where it is needed most.

Link: Macmillan virtual gifts

Save the Children – eg, five mosquito nets,£21 

Gifts that can save lives in the developing world

Types of gifts: Buy four tree saplings for £12, five mosquito nets for £21 or an Essential Baby Kit, which includes a washbowl, nappies, towels, a wrap, soap and warm baby cap for £33.

What does the charity get? When you buy a gift, your money goes towards projects within that theme, eg, education. For every £1 it gets, Save the Children spends 87p on its work to benefit children, 8p on fundraising and 5p on general/management costs.

Link: Save the Children wish list

Oxfam – eg, buy a goat for a family, £26

Support village projects

Types of gifts: With Oxfam, you can pay to educate a child for £19, a pile of poo for £10 (fertiliser for crops), provide safe water for 10 people for £10 or give a goat to supply a family with milk for £26. As with other livestock gifts, the goat gift also provides business training for the goat's new owners.

What does the charity get? Your donation will be spent on a related Oxfam project, for example, cash from water-themed gifts goes to one of its water and sanitation projects. For every £1 donated, 82p goes on projects, 10p on running costs and 8p on fundraising.

You can also spend Nectar points on a range of Oxfam Unwrapped Gifts – see full details.

Link: Oxfam Unwrapped

WaterAid – eg, 'Bog Builder', £54

Tackle the world's water crisis

Types of gifts: A mason to construct a family loo for £54, a bag of cement for a toilet base for £10 or a water hand pump for £37.

What does the charity get? For every £1 donated, WaterAid spends 76p on delivering services to those in need and 24p on fundraising. Your money goes towards its full range of projects, and isn't limited to the specific gift you choose. What's more, the Government will double any donations made until 31 January 2018.

Link: Charity gifts

Refuge – eg, 'safety and independence' parcel, £50

Support women and children escaping domestic violence

Types of gifts: Refuge has two types of Christmas gift – a 'gift list' where donations are used to buy presents for women and children using its services this Christmas (such as a teddy bear for £10).

Alternatively you can buy refuge parcels, eg, a Christmas dinner parcel for £5, an emergency parcel for £10 or a Safety and Independence parcel for £50, which includes home safety installations, housing and welfare, help finding work and emotional support from the Refuge team. When you donate, you'll receive a thank you letter.

What does the charity get? Refuge is aiming to raise £41,000 this Christmas to provide support for all those using its services. Until that target is reached, every penny of your gift list donation goes directly to your chosen cause. Any funds left over will go towards the charity's running costs. For the refuge parcels, 79p out of every £1 donated goes directly to the charitable activity.

Link: Refuge parcels & gift list

WWF – eg, adopt an elephant, £3/month

Help protect endangered species

Types of gifts: Adopt one of a range of animals, including elephants, from £3/month and receive regular updates on your chosen species, plus a cuddly toy.

What does the charity get? When you adopt an animal, the money goes towards conservation work for either an individual animal or a small group (you won't be the only person who adopts that animal). For every £1 donated, 85p is used directly for conservation work and campaigns, 11p for fundraising and 4p on administration costs.

Link: WWF Adopt An Animal

Centrepoint – eg, Christmas dinner, £10

Help support the homeless

Types of gifts: Buy a homeless young person a Christmas dinner for £10, a Christmas gift for £13, a set of toiletries for £15, or a safe, comfy bed for the night for £35.

What does the charity get? 76p of every pound raised is used to continue Centrepoint's work to support homeless young people, 23p is used for fundraising and 1p for running the charity. The gifts are just examples of the way your money could be spent, and donations are distributed across Centrepoint's work.

Link: Centrepoint More Than A Gift

Christian Aid – eg, food for refugee, £15

Transform the lives of those living in poverty

Types of gifts: School books and stationery for a child for £9, a goat kid to provide milk for £9 or a safe place to sleep for £20.

What does the charity get? For every £1 donated, 85p is spent on direct charitable work, 15p on fundraising and running the charity. Cash from gifts goes to projects within the relevant sector, eg, agriculture and livestock.

Link: Present Aid

Good Gifts – eg, drought survival kit, £28

Help those in the developing world

Types of gifts: Fund a tailoring business in the developing world for £9, an hour's respite for parents of disabled kids for £15, a drought survival kit for £28 or provide de-worming tablets for 1,000 children for £50.

What does the charity get? Good Gifts guarantees that all of your money will go to exactly what you've bought. Instead of charging a handling fee as it used to, it now uses Gift Aid donations to keep the site running.

Link: Good Gifts

IMPACT Foundation – eg, restoring someone's sight, £40

Improving health and preventing disability

Types of gifts: A home garden to feed a family for £25 or restoring a person's sight, hearing or mobility for £40. Gift tokens come with a gift wallet, artist-designed tea towel or cotton bag and newsletter.

What does the charity get? For every £1 donated, 92p goes directly to the chosen project, 6p goes towards generating more income and 2p is spent on support costs.

Link: IMPACT gift tokens

CAFOD gifts – eg, reading lessons, £10

Teach vital life skills and support new mothers

Types of gifts: Catholic aid agency CAFOD's gifts include an emergency food package for a refugee family for £50, reading lessons for £10, a healthy mum and baby medical package for £30 or a happy queen bee for £4 (brings more bees to a hive, giving more honey).

What does the charity get? For every £1 donated, 87p is spent on international emergency and development work, and 13p on fundraising and work management. Donations go towards funding projects in that gift's category (eg, education and skills training, or water and food) rather than to a specific gift.

Link: CAFOD World Gifts

Help out at a homeless centre

Homelessness charity Crisis is looking for volunteers to help run homeless centres in London, Birmingham, Coventry, Newcastle and Edinburgh. The centres provide meals, entertainment and learning opportunities for people living rough or sleeping in hostels over Christmas.

Crisis needs 11,000 volunteers and although it started recruiting in October, your local one may still have places fill. You don't need any qualifications or experience to be a general volunteer, but they're also looking for people with specific skills, eg, chefs, hair and beauty therapists, tutors and counsellors.

You can choose which shifts you'd like to do when you apply, but Crisis advises applying as early as possible to ensure you get the shifts you want. It says generally it asks volunteers to commit to a minimum of two shifts, but for some specific roles this might vary.

Befriend an isolated older person

Age UK is looking for 'telephone befrienders' to have a 30-min call with an older person once a week. You'll be matched with someone with similar interests and given online training.

You don't have to give out your phone number, as Age UK's computer system automatically connects you with your telephone friend. You'll need to keep your conversations confidential.

This is a year-round opportunity, but loneliness can be acute at Christmas – particularly for elderly people living alone.

Give to a foodbank

December is the busiest month for foodbanks, with 45% more referrals from Citizens Advice and other organisations. Here are some ways you can help...

1. Participate in a 'reverse advent calendar'

The UK Money Bloggers community is encouraging people to take part in a 'reverse advent calendar' by donating an item to a foodbank every day in the run-up to Christmas. Find out what's needed and where your local foodbank is, then share pics of what you've donated on social media using #foodbankadvent. Don't worry if you've not started yet, foodbanks will need donations in January too.

2. Use supermarket coupons to make cheap donations

If you want to give, but don't have much spare cash, check out our Supermarket Coupons page to see if you can get suitable items for free or at a discount. If you fancy, try your hand at a bit of extreme couponing, then give your haul away. There are often coupons available for food, as well as for essentials such as toothpaste.

Quick questions

  • The Trussell Trust is one of the largest foodbank organisations – see a map of its locations.

    You can also check your council's website for info about other foodbanks, while charities will often put out alerts on social media if they're accepting donations.

    Places of worship often run foodbanks or welcome donations, no matter what faith you are. And schools and even supermarkets run food drives, so check these too – they'll explain the type of produce that they'll accept.

  • Forumites have asked the same question. Staples such as tinned meat, fruit, veg or soup, or tea bags, pasta sauce, pasta and cereals are always popular. 

    See the forum's Foodbank thread for a list of suitable products and where you can find them on offer.

Donate blankets to animal shelters

Sadly lots of unwanted pets will be spending Christmas in rehoming centres. You can support them by donating blankets, treats and toys.

To find a centre near you, search online for 'animal shelters' or 'animal rescue centres' in your area. They'll usually list online what donations they most need, or you can call and ask before you visit.

Plus if you're good with a knitting needle, Battersea Dogs & Cats Home has instructions on making blankets, cat toys, and even a bandana (on which calming scents can be sprayed for stressed dogs).

Feed the starving for free

Click on a host of charity websites, and sponsors donate on your behalf to those in need. On the Hunger Site – an example of a 'click 'n' give' website – over 1.5 million cups of food were donated in November alone.

Click through and amid a pile of banners you'll see an orange button in the middle of the site's front page. There's an emblazoned message: "Click here – it's free!" Click on this link and its sponsors will donate some money to charity.

The logic behind this site is brilliant. It's a win-win-win situation for the starving, the internet user and the sponsors. For companies it's a cost-effective, feel-good public relations exercise, especially powerful when helping to promote ethical brands.

Where does the food go?

The Hunger Site is a US site, and while two-thirds of donations go to alleviating hunger in the developing world, one third helps those within the US. Yet clicks from anywhere in the world count.

The food is distributed by non-profit partners such as Mercy Corps, a large US charity which provides aid in more than 40 countries. Last year visitor clicks paid for over 20 million cups of food to be distributed.

Give blood

Giving blood can be an invaluable gift for someone you don't even know. Donations are needed year-round, but this can be a great way to do good at Christmas without having to spend any money.

For full info on who can give blood and where you need to go, click the relevant country's link: England & N Wales, the rest of WalesScotland and Northern Ireland.