News in focus: A return to charity's roots in the season of goodwill

At Christmas, politics and policy take a back seat and the true meaning of charity comes to the fore for many in the voluntary sector. Mathew Little and Indira Das-Gupta profile four charities' seasonal activities.

At Christmas, the charity sector goes back to its roots. The rat race of applications to grant makers, contract negotiations with local authorities and the lobbying of politicians is held in abeyance while charities concentrate on asking the public to think of others in the season of goodwill.

Some parts of the sector such as homelessness charities or Salvation Army brass bands are as much a part of the Christmas scene as the office knees-up. Small local charities also find their niche, shaking tins under the noses of Christmas shoppers on high streets up and down the country.

Others - the conservation sector for example - struggle to find such natural synergy.

For many social care charities, Christmas can be the busiest time of the year, caring for the neglected whose plight is thrown sharply into relief at this time of year.

Then there are charities whose message jostles with Christmas enthusiasm - the Dogs Trust, for example, aims to discourage the seasonal impulse to buy a dog (see below).

For the parts of the sector with attractions open to the public, Christmas is a time to take advantage of a brief hiatus in the hordes of visitors to do much-needed repair work. But many charities do what everyone else does - shut down for the holidays. Charity workers need a rest, like the rest of the nation.


Homelessness charity Crisis has become indelibly associated with Christmas and is undertaking its 34th Open Christmas. This year, the eight-day event, based at six different venues across London, including the Millennium Dome, aims to offer homeless people basic skills that could lead to training and employment. From 23 to 30 December, 3,000 volunteers will each do two seven-hour shifts at one of the venues.

The volunteers include specialists such as adult education tutors and yoga and aerobics teachers. Doctors and dentists will also staff a medical area and general volunteers will help with tasks such as cleaning or simply befriending people.

For head office staff, in contrast to the rest of the nation, the Christmas period is no holiday. The workload spirals in line with the demands of managing such an ambitious event. Eight temporary staff work during the Christmas period in areas such as communications, fundraising and project delivery.

Ten volunteers, who are mostly full-time, also help out at the head office.

Another 10 spend three hours a week processing volunteer applications for those wishing to give time to Open Christmas.

Dogs Trust

The Dogs Trust scales down some of its work during the festive season.

This isn't because of lack of demand, but to reinforce its now famous motto, "A dog is for life not just for Christmas".

Between 19 December and 2 January, the charity's 15 rehoming centres around the country will stop assigning abandoned dogs to new owners in a bid to discourage people from giving canine Christmas presents. If people do want a dog, they are asked to come back in the New Year if they still want to make the commitment. "We still accept dogs and concentrate on the dogs that need our help," said a spokeswoman.

Unfortunately, the charity is still busy at Christmas. The Bridgend centre in Wales faces a Christmas influx of unwanted puppies when puppy farms, many of which are located in Wales, abandon dogs they are unable to sell during the run-up to Christmas.


Samaritans is open 24 hours a day, seven days a week, all year round.

Christmas is the charity's busiest period, with between 10 and 20 per cent more people making contact either through the helpline or email, than during the rest of the year. The last two weeks of December and the first two weeks of January are particularly busy. There are 17,600 volunteers working for Samaritans, but the charity doesn't take on any more over the Christmas period.

A spokeswoman for Samaritans explained: "Christmas is a stressful time for some people. Some are under financial pressure, and others might be on their own. We probably get contacted by a lot of people who rely on services that close down over Christmas. It's hard for people who are isolated as there is so much pressure from the media for people to feel like they are having a good time."

Yet it is not Christmas, but the New Year that has the highest suicide rates of the year. The spokeswoman added: "In a way, Christmas almost protects people from feeling too low, because despite the pressures, it's a holiday. But when they then go back to work, the bubble bursts."

National Trust

Although the National Trust closes many of its historic homes for three months from November, Christmas is actually a very busy time for the charity.

When its buildings are closed, all household objects are carefully checked and essential repairs take place. Historically, the families who lived in these homes often spent the period from January until Easter in London for the season, so it has traditionally been a time for essential maintenance work.

Those homes that stay open in the run-up to Christmas often have extended opening hours as it is a popular time for people to visit them. Special workshops are organised for children at many sites.

The charity's open-air spaces tend to be busy over Christmas. A spokeswoman said: "We find that lots of people are desperate to get out and have some fresh air during the holidays."

The National Trust's 100 shops sell a range of Christmas products and many homes offer traditional Christmas meals, both of which are important sources of revenue for the charity. Increasingly, people are buying annual membership to the trust as a Christmas present for a loved one or friend.

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