Wednesday, 31 August 2011

BHF have missed a trick and taken the sector one step backwards

BHF have today managed to secure a remarkable amount of air time for their research into charity collections for clothes, including Today, the Times and Guardian. The publication of this research was timed to fit with the launch of a major fundraising campaign by BHF, of course a good cause. However, I don’t think this was a responsible or particularly productive thing for BHF to do.

Firstly the debate about where money from donated clothes goes and where charity income comes from has nothing whatsoever to do with effectiveness of a charity and is no proxy for comparing different charities. Many charities have no shops of their own nor any network for collecting bags from people’s homes. However, if they are able to make some money from this donation method through outsourcing to a firm which collects those bags then good for them. Clearly they have a duty to look for the best deal, but there are a lot of overheads involved in such a process.

Now you can say that the charity which does have its own shops and it’s own army of staff to collect bags are seeing 100% of the donations go to the charity. But the 100% is not all going to the charity’s mission. Some is going to the overheads of running shops and employing collection staff.

The comparisons get harder if the two charities are doing different work. If I want to give my clothes to benefit a charity which protects ducks but doesn’t have any shops, then I’m not going to be motivated to give to a charity which protects badgers just because they have their own charity shops. I might feel completely fine about say 40% of the value of my clothes going to ducks rather than say 60% which would have gone to badgers, because I don’t like badgers.

These comparisons therefore are misleading and unhelpful.

But there is a much more fundamental problem with the line which BHF have taken, that it will simply perpetuate the same old myths about charities. The overwhelming public feeling to today’s story will not be that we’d better give to BHF rather than anyone else, it will be that all charities end up being tarred with the same brush: we can’t be trusted and all the money we’re given is wasted on bureaucracy. I did a phone in on BBC Radio Sheffield this morning and this was the overwhelming sentiment from people there.

It’s nonsense for any charity to claim that all of any donation goes to the cause. And it doesn’t help anyone to encourage the public to judge us in this way. BHF are right to stress the need for transparency, but with transparency we should also be leading the debate about what is of real value when judging a charity. We should be judged on our impact and the value for money of our work, not on crude measures of inputs. what matters is how much difference did we make for the money which donors invested in us? If BHF wanted to say that they are the most worthy charity to give to then they should have championed the impact of their work, the lives they are saving, the many thousands of people for whom their support has been invaluable. After all they have a great story to tell.

Charities do and should compete for donations, and sometimes that competition will be fierce and even dirty. But as the sector grows and becomes increasingly professional we do all have a shared responsibility to treat the public with a bit more respect and start a real debate about how effective we really are, or we will all lose out.


  1. There's this general scepticism / mistrust around all charities right now - a feeling they could be leaner, more transparent, cut back on overheads etc - and the charity shop/clothes story is just a distraction feeding into that general narrative.

    Isn't the bigger challenge to shift perceptions of charities away from this inherent suspicion the media, and perhaps also the public, currently has ?

    Perhaps ACEVO could start a high-profile commission or something? ;)

  2. I think that transparency on the bags is absolutely vital. There has to be transparency on corporate Christmas Cards which are tied in with charities, so why not bags.

    If I knew that a low % of income was going to the charity, I would choose to fill the bag with unsaleable items (as the charity would be paid for tonneage) and choose to give my higher value 'good' clothing to a charity that would probably more from it.

    But then *I* like badgers ;)

  3. So what is ImpACT/ACEVO doing about this then? What powers do you have if the big brands start to slug it out like the supermarkets do?

    Talk is cheap, action is what is needed. The institute have been remarkably quiet bearing in mind BHF are a member.

  4. From my perspective, the really discouraging thing about this BHF research is that it has the distinct whiff of big charity ganging up on smaller charities.

    As a representative of the Make A Wish foundation writes here:, it does seem like the BHF is trying make itself into the 'good guy' here, and encourage donations to its own shops and collections at the expense of other charities. It does tend to be the smaller charities who rely on companies like Clothes Aid, who collect and sell good and pass on a donation, and it's them who will suffer if people do take on board what BHF are asserting.