Opinion: Third Voice - Let's get people thinking and talking about charity

Jessica Williams, a journalist and TV producer

Why do British people need to know how to give to charity? After all, research into giving habits shows that British people are very generous.

The Charities Aid Foundation and the NCVO put the total amount donated in 2004/05 at £8.2bn - £170 for each adult in Britain - and 28 million of us give to charity every month. So a book entitled How to Give to Charity might seem, at first glance, a little superfluous.

In the aftermath of last year's tsunami in southern Asia, my publishers spoke to me about writing something about charity. As we talked about it more, I began to realise that, although Britons may give generously to charity, we do not always understand why we're doing it - or what we're giving to.

How many people know that Britain's charity laws are still influenced by a statute passed more than 400 years ago? I certainly didn't. Nearly 90 per cent don't realise that Eton College is a charity, but more than a quarter think the Child Support Agency is. People believe that a quarter of charity donations come from big businesses, when company donations made up only 4.3 per cent of all giving in 2004. There's clearly a need for more information.

The sector is in a process of transformation. Along with a raft of new laws, there's increased competition for donations and more government involvement in funding. Charities are looking closely at what they do and how they do it, but the public needs to understand these issues too.

In the future, the charities that can best articulate who they are and what they do will be the ones that succeed in attracting donors. Greater transparency and approachability will be crucial to retaining the public's goodwill. How to Give to Charity aims to get people thinking and talking about charity.

Charities also need to think about some of the broader questions donors might ask. Why are people giving to us? How transparent are we? How well do we counter tabloid arguments about high administration costs and 'fat-cat' salaries? Most of all, does the public really understand what we do?

The sector is changing rapidly and facing many complex questions, but it's crucial that charities remember to keep donors informed too. More than ever, they need to be prepared to make their case - not just for their own causes, but for the sector as a whole.

How to Give to Charity is published by Icon Books and costs £6.99.

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