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Is it time to say goodye to the virtual goat?

Is it time to say goodye to the virtual goat?
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Is it time to say goodye to the virtual goat?

Fundraising | Gemma Ware | 1 Jan 2007

It's been a bad Christmas for the virtual gift. In a torrent of negative press, spurred on by a series of provocative press releases originating from within the ethical gift market itself, virtual gifts have been attacked as misleading to the public and even environmentally destructive. Can charities recover from the bruising or has the virtual gift bubble burst?

Despite the recent negative news coverage, Oxfam, one of the biggest players in the market, insists it hasn't seen a knock-on effect of sales from its virtual gift catalogue, Oxfam Unwrapped. "We are still pleased with the results," said Rachel Brown, the catalogue's manager, who said the charity had already sold 340,000 gifts by mid-December and was just as successful as in the same period last year. "We think the debate may have confused customers but it hasn't put them off."

Other charities offering virtual animals say it is too early to tell what the impact will be. "We won't know really until the end of January," said Michael Newsome, director of fundraising at FARM-Africa, whose FARM Friends range offers shoppers bees and camels as well as goats. The charity reacted strongly to accusations in the media made by Animal Aid and the World Land Trust that sending animals to some parts of Africa caused deforestation and placed an economic burden on the animal's recipients.

"We're very disappointed that two very small issues-based organisations have been able to get so much coverage and jeopardise vital income to some hugely respected and very responsible aid organisations," said Newsome.

However, James Briggs, planning director at creative agency Bluefrog said many in the sector were expecting the backlash and he didn't think virtual gifts were in danger of collapsing. "The coverage has harmed things a bit, but I don't think it's going to be the end of virtual gifts," he said. "It'll just become more competitive which will probably mean some charities will withdraw from the market because it becomes less profitable the higher they have to compete."

The market has become noticeably crowded, with a whole gamut of gifts and experiences on offer in the lead up to Christmas. One new player, CLICSargent, which launched The Smile Shop offering the chance to buy gifts such as sleepovers for child cancer sufferers for £28, said it was happy with the way things were going so far. "CLICSargent feels this is a great way for us to engage with our donors and supporters while doing something innovative and creative," said Matthew Hunt, the charity's head of marketing.

Bluefrog's Briggs said it was inevitable that even more charities would start designing their own gift ranges out of fear of losing potential money from their existing donor-base. "Essentially it's income that they're giving away if they don't give their donors an opportunity to buy their gifts from them," he said.

But if the backlash continues, perhaps animals could be superceded by the more practical end of the gift range. Although Oxfam Unwrapped still offer the chance to buy a goat for £24, it has increased the range of gifts on offer and this year featured a £20 alpaca package, that included shears, shelter food and fences, as one of its "most wanted" gifts rather than a goat.

"We have always featured gifts other than animals in our catalogue, but sales figures are now reflecting that these other items, such as school desks, tree planting, water and toilets are becoming more popular with the UK public. We believe that this will continue to grow in the future," said Oxfam's Brown.

So although virtual gifts may have had a little bit of a wobble, it looks like they'll still be around next Christmas. 

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