Christmas is meant to be about giving. The frenzy of present-buying for friends and family puts many people in a generous mood, even toward strangers. And for many charities, the donations they receive as a result of their pre-Christmas campaigns fund their budgets for much of the coming year.
However, many of the traditional methods used by fundraisers are not filling charity coffers as effectively as they once did and charities have been forced to consider fresh approaches to encourage donations, especially from younger consumers - methods that have not been without their fair share of controversy.
While there is no doubt that tried-and-tested tactics such as direct mail, unaddressed door-drops and street fundraising still have important roles to play in the pre-Christmas donation drive, each of these channels is feeling the pressure.
A growing number of households are signing up to the Mailing Preference Service, requesting that they do not receive addressed direct mail from firms with which they have no relationship.
Research conducted by Nielsen Media Research exclusively for Marketing (27 September) revealed that 30% of direct mail sent by charities is never opened, compared with the industry average of 22%. The squeeze is so intense that Sonya Burke, direct marketing manager at Amnesty International, has questioned whether it will use the medium at all in the future.
It is also possible that people will close their letter boxes to door-drops altogether. The Direct Marketing Association has proposed an opt-out scheme for unaddressed mail that occupants can sign up to, making the challenge charities face even greater.
Coupled with a public backlash against street fundraisers - the 'charity mugger' chuggers - this means charities are having to develop innovative strategies to continue attracting donations around the festive period.
One such initiative is linking up with consumer brands to sell gifts, but this can be a risky strategy. Earlier this month, Unicef reportedly angered some of its employees by agreeing to produce an exclusive Christmas line with fashion label Gucci, which has been accused of using sweatshop workers.
Clive Mollet, director at consultancy 121 Fundraising, defends Unicef's position. 'You have to make compromises,' he says. 'Taking a purist point of view is one thing, but ultimately the goal is to raise money, so I would say the deal is a great coup for Unicef.'
A well-thought-out brand alliance can certainly be beneficial. Unicef has traditionally relied on brand tie-ups for much of its funding and has had success over the years with a long-standing association with British Airways.
Ethical gift-giving catalogues are also emerging as effective fundraisers. Giving a villager in a developing country a gift of a goat in the name of a friend or family member came to widespread public attention for the first time last Christmas.
The schemes, run by a number of charities, have proved extremely lucrative. Christian Aid raised £1m in 2004 and £3m in 2005 through its Present Aid initiative, and has a target of £3.5m this year. In 2005, one of the most popular charity Christmas gifts was a goat from the Oxfam Unwrapped catalogue and website.
But even ethical gifts have come under fire. The World Land Trust and Animal Aid recently accused some charities of cynicism, and dismissed their schemes as gimmicks. Animal Aid argued that far from relieving poverty, the grazing livestock worsen the situation as they sap vital water supplies and damage the land.
'I think many charities fail to engage with what the supporters want,' adds Mollet. 'It is all very well saying "Merry Christmas granny, I've sent a cow to Africa on your behalf" but is it really what supporters want?'
Charities have been quick to defend their schemes. Oxfam Unwrapped manager Rachel Brown says: 'We don't use cute animals for no reason. The presents we offer are directly related to feedback from our projects around the world and we have the infrastructure in place to make this a sustainable scheme.'
Ethical gifts also provide charities with the opportunity to capture data about both the giver and recipient, which can be incorporated into future donor acquisition drives. Oxfam, for example, sends all its shoppers a newsletter to inform them of the difference their gifts are making. It also argues that the scheme has enabled it to attract new donors and that the animals have been especially popular among younger givers.
To connect with this demographic, charities are also testing emerging media such as podcasting, texting and blogging, although it is too early to tell whether they are having a significant effect.
Brands have even been eyeing the potential of online virtual worlds. Last week, Save the Children became the first UK charity to set up camp in Second Life. Having sold out of real yaks, the charity is now selling pixelated Yaks from its 'Yak Shack' for 1000 Linden dollars (£1.80). Owners can ride, milk or even knit a jumper from their virtual yak's hair.
Walking the tightrope between achieving memorable and effective communications and damaging their reputation is a challenge charities will continue to face - but it is one they must meet if they are to continue having prosperous Christmases.
DATA FILE - ALTERNATIVE CHRISTMAS GIFTS
- Save the Children
Virtual yak on Second Life - 1000 Linden dollars (roughly £1.80)
10 counselling sessions £40
Just the job ... for an entire village £1300
- Unicef (unicef.org.uk)
Emergency gift £18-£500
Tonne of porridge £240
Roundabout water pump £3450
- Christian Aid (presentaid.com)
Safe haven £1000
Fresh water £45
- Send a Cow
Christmas farmyard £2000.