A total of 91 per cent of 1,001 adults surveyed by CAF said they had not benefited from charity in the past year. But when shown a list of charity-run services and organisations, 58 per cent said they had benefited from at least one of them in the past month alone.
The survey shows there is a wide gap between people's perceptions of charities and what they actually do.
Of those who had benefited from charity service in the previous month, 43 per cent had bought items from charity shops, 19 per cent had gone to church or some other charitable religious institution and 18 per cent had visited stately houses or gardens run by charities.
Other popular charity activities included visiting theatres, galleries and museums.
"This research challenges the commonly held view that charities are run for the few, not the many, and shows that most of us underestimate the broad role charities play in enhancing all our lives," said John Low, chief executive of CAF.
"I hope these findings will help people to think differently about supporting charities even in these tough economic times."