Transparency back in fashion?

By Sue Wixley 31 August 2011

What do you do with your unwanted clothes? I tend to take my stuff to an Oxfam shop around the corner from my house. But if it wasn’t so conveniently located, I’d probably be reaching for one of those charity bags that come through the letterbox when next I cleared out my closet.

But just how charitable are those bags? Today, the British Heart Foundation (BHF) shop revealed that “as little as one third (30%) of items donated to charity via letterbox charity bags stand a chance of ending up in charity shops”. The research also showed that “over two thirds (70%) of charity bags an average householder receives are from commercial companies, working with charities for financial gain, by selling the donated items overseas”.

Apparently this comes as a suprise to the average donor and the BHF has called for greater transparency about how much profit from the contents of these bags actually goes to charity.

Transparency needed

The cynics amongst us might think there is more than a little self interest involved in the BHF announcement: the survey findings are helping to kickstart the charity’s Big Donation campaign aimed at re-stocking its 670 shops around the country.

We cynics might also think that greater transparency about the costs of running BHF shops and household collections would be useful. Surely the responsibility to explain their running costs should not rest only with the social enterprises and businesses that manage clothing collections – and the smaller charities that rely on them – but with big charities that run the schemes as well? (The retail director of the charity, Mike Lucas, says that because BHF runs its own charity bag scheme and that 100% of the profits “stay with the charity”. But he doesn’t give a breakdown of the profits from the scheme vs the running costs.)

It is, however, easy to agree that greater transparency would be a good thing.  For one, it would mean that charities would get better at educating the public about the realities of running effective organisations and the fact that it costs money to do so. Even volunteers don’t come free. This should come as no suprise to the average donor, yet it does.

Unless we explain ourselves, donors will always feel duped when they find out that some of their donation is channeled into running costs or fundraising efforts.  And if we don’t tell them, how can we expect donors to understand or to hand us last season’s fashion?