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The virtue of virtual gifts, and how companies can play their part

The virtue of virtual gifts, and how companies can play their part

I can clearly remember receiving my first ever virtual gift. I was 10 and greedily anticipating a barrage of picture-perfect wrapped presents for my birthday, only to find myself bitterly disappointed when I opened a slim card to find a picture of a goat smiling glibly back at me. I was now the ‘lucky’ sponsor of this furry farm dweller, who I was assured was being well cared for in a far-flung country thanks to the magnanimity of my aunt, who’d donated £10 on my behalf. I’d been dealt a grave injustice, or so I thought at the time.

Fast-forward 17 years and I’m a locked-down Londoner with absolutely no desire to receive additions to my cluttered bedroom every special occasion. Unwanted gifts of yesteryear have quickly found their way to local charity shops, loaded with a deep sense of guilt and mounting concern for the impact of all of this wasteful production on the environment. As a wannabe minimalist and adoring fan of our planet (after all, we only have one, right?) virtual gifts are the only kind I’d now be genuinely relieved to receive. After all, you don’t have to act delighted in front of an e-card.

This isn’t a selfless gesture: I’d still be pretty picky about the kind I’d want to see. Humanitarian causes have always appealed to me more than ecological ones (I find it much easier to connect on an empathic level with families and individuals fleeing oppression, war and famine than baby goats, however adorable they may be). I want a gift that has a positive impact on people who I am otherwise powerless to help, whether that’s due to political or geographical constraints. Much of this feeling is entirely egoistic: I want to feel like I’ve done what I can, however small it may be, so that when I nervously open BBC News and read the latest article that knot in my stomach is ever so slightly loosened.

This is the secret virtue of virtual gifts. Instead of becoming hampered with a poorly thought-out gift that we neither want nor need every time the office Secret Santa comes around, the recipient gets the knowledge that they’ve made a meaningful difference to someone or something, somewhere. For even the briefest moment, we feel good about ourselves and this bonkers world we live in: and when have we ever needed to feel this more than right now?


Virtual gifts made their mark on the fundraising landscape a long time ago, and are experiencing a kind of renaissance under the restrictions of lockdown. Distressing and downright depressing as it was for many of us to be separated from our loved ones over Christmas 2020, the Tier 4 restrictions forced many people to get creative and find new ways to connect with family and friends over the festive period. For the thousands of shoppers not wanting to take a chance with strained postal services or crowded shopping centres, or those who find themselves increasingly turned off by their own carbon footprint or the questionable practices of some of the online giants of retail, virtual gifts made, and continue to make, complete sense.

The Crisis Shop to Stop Homelessness, launched in November 2020, took our virtual gift suite to a new level and raised an astounding £131,000 in support of our work to end homelessness. Our supporters had always relished the opportunity to buy a place for a guest at a Crisis Christmas centre, but now they can purchase a range of gifts that could transform the lives of people experiencing homelessness as they work with us year-round. These included cover for travel costs (to help people get to and from Crisis Skylight centres, where they receive essential support) and even a package of employability support, to help our members work towards a career of their choice.

We were lucky to be able to collaborate with a corporate partner on a virtual gift for the very first time. Tesco Mobile worked with us to deliver the Christmas (SIM) card campaign, which gave customers the opportunity to give the gift of connection to people experiencing homelessness over the festive period. The (SIM) card started at £5 and was purchased over 1,000 times between November and January, but none of us expected these customers to go on to engage so fully in the range of virtual gifts on offer.

In total, the campaign succeeded in driving £37,613 in donations via our Shop to Stop Homelessness. This astounding total was then match funded by Tesco Mobile, meaning that a total of £75,227 was gifted to Crisis in order to fund 385 phones and data packs for Christmas guests at our emergency hotels. With a combined reach of over 310 million across social media, press and radio, the campaign also raised awareness of Crisis' Christmas project and our partnership with Tesco Mobile among new audiences.

Crisis is not just for Christmas: our 11 Skylight centres remain open year-round to support people to leave homelessness behind for good, and so does the Shop to Stop Homelessness. Moreover, Tesco Mobile continue to stand side by side with Crisis, providing an incredible £700,000 worth of vital devices and connectivity for our Skylight members and working to build awareness around the importance of digital connection for people experiencing homelessness across our two-year partnership.

Many things remain uncertain in 2021, but we know that we cannot end homelessness alone. The achievements of the Tesco Mobile (SIM) card campaign have proven that when we work together we can make wonderful things happen and reach more people than we’d ever imagined possible. We invite companies to join us in our expansion of our virtual gift programme and put their stamp on a unique charitable gift.

We promise that there won’t be a goat in sight.


Ella Dinsdale is a Partnerships Account Manager at Crisis. To get in touch and explore how you can play a part in making homelessness a thing of the past, please contact