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Something needs to be done about charity clothing collections before it’s too late

So it seems that chugging got some time off this week as the
most publicly-derided form of fundraising.

Research by the British Heart Foundation about
where exactly the clothes people donate in charity bags end up – mostly sold
aboard as rag, apparently – got nationwide coverage and ignited some serious
debate.

There are a lot of very serious, threatening problems that
doorstep collections are facing right now. Organised criminal gangs posting fraudulent
bags through doors or stealing full charity bags from doorsteps are among the
worst of these.

The sector is up against far more than just the problems it has created for itself, so I feel it’s time for more collaboration in
this area rather than further in-fighting or territorial behaviour.

I realise every charity needs to raise funds to continue its valuable work, but every charity also holds part of a collective
responsibility to maintain the sector’s reputation amongst the public.

If the public stops trusting charities – and, to a
frightening extent, once people start to distrust some charities, they
very quickly seem to tarnish others with exactly the same brush –
then the sector is likely to lose a lot of time, money and other forms of
donations.

One obvious problem the
sector could start trying to solve is the fact that there must be many
wearable items of clothing that are shipped off as rag overseas, while
charity shops must be given plenty of clothes that no one is ever going to buy
from them and has to be sold as rag.

Marking bags clearly to tell the public where the items will
be going, and therefore what type of items it would be best to donate, is one
option the sector could look into.

Another may be some sort of collaborative system so
charity shops can give rag to charities without shops, in return for items that
are far too good to be rag.

There are obvious practicalities to consider carefully, but solutions do need to found. This is the first of
many issues that could be tackled by charities together. Another would be thinking about the
number of bags the public receive – a startling 60m a year, according to one
recent report.

So instead of any more arguments about who has the right to
all these clothes, maybe it’s time to start thinking about collaborating and
creating a more successful form of fundraising for everyone – before the public
get any more confused about and distrustful of donation bags.

  • Danny Boyle

    “Chugging the most publicly-derided form of fundraising.”

    Hear Hear.

  • Danny Boyle

    “Chugging most publicly-derided form of fundraising.”

    Hear Hear Miss Hudson!

  • Janet Thorne

    Absolutely spot on Rob. Volunteers are central to the
    functioning of so many charities – yet in some cases they are treated by those
    same organisations as an awkward adjunct rather than an essential, valuable resource. Chief executives and senior management must create
    an organisational culture that cherishes the time and skills donated by
    volunteers by investing thought and time in defining volunteer roles well,
    recruiting in the right people and managing them effectively. The charity will
    then reap benefits far in excess of the time they have invested, and also, they
    will be demonstrating proper respect for people who are willing to commit their
    time, energy and expertise to their cause for no financial reward.

  • Wally Harbert

    You make some very telling points Rob. This is well up to your usual standard. You deserve a wider audience.

    ACEVO ranks among the most effective third sector organisations ever. It is very influential, punching above its weight and gets more sound bytes per member than any other organisation in the sector.
    Bravo!

    It has fought to extend opportunities for the sector to run public services and therefore finds it difficult to represent the needs of charities that run advocacy services or that struggle to empower volunteers and their local communities.

    I do not entirely blame ACEVO for getting into bed
    with the government. This opened opportunities for more funding and brought greater rewards for chief executives. But, of course, the interests of the sector and those if its chief executives are not the same.

    ACEVO represents only a tiny – and diminishing – proportion of chief executives. If it were accountable to a broad membership that paid its own subscriptions it would not have squandered money on a birthday party for its chief executive and would have addressed the issues you raise.

  • Eowyn Rohan

    I am not sure whether a credible Third Sector exists…any business which relies on volunteers for a proportion of its staff, but which devotes its salary budget to servicing the lifestyle of a declining number of Board Members and Senior Managers, is simply a business.

    Unfortunately, if any business gets into bed with Government, is party to something as insidious as the Work Programme (or any unemployment scheme), and thereby compromises its intergrity, they only have themselves to blame if they find their contingent of staff is restricted to the criminal class (who have been sentenced to Community Service) and the demonised benefit claimant.

    Far better that, if a Third Sector Business wishes to recruit legitimate volunteers, they either make their own way, independent of Government, or simply give up…. unfortunately, the cost to the State is quite excessive, and the State cannot indulge or tolerate any business which, on the one hand, recruits someone (without paying their fair share of salary, tax, national insurance), but on the other, must continue to support a benefit claimant through providing Job Seekers Allowance (for example).

  • dieseltaylor

    I am pleased to find a discussion like this. I am at the moment deeply disenchanted with a particular charity where the CEO and four of the top positions have seen a roughly £0.5M increase in salaries since 2007.

    Getting over my disgust and looking at the governance side of the the charity, and I suspect this is true of others, there is no mechanism for members to influence or even talk about remuneration.

    It seems to me that what is required for all volunteers/charity members is a bulletin board system where every charity can be talked about. Preferably with a private forum for actual members where more sensitive matters could be discussed.

    I see one charity has introduced perfomance bonuses for staff where reaching “stretching” targets means 100% of salary bonuses. Which has lead me to the point of wondering if not only the top man but everyone on say £100k plus has their full contract details revealed.

    As a sometime volunteer for several charities over the decades to find Trustees blithely spending funds on senior staff feels me with despair and anger.

    • patricklt

      You touch on a very interesting point, namely what is it that ‘makes’ a charity: as far as the Charities Commission is concerned, it largely comes down to their understanding of ‘public benefit’ and whether the purpose of the organisation is wholly ‘charitable’, in the sense of meeting their own definitions drawn from the Charities Act. Insufficient priority, in my opinion, seems to be given to the way the organisation is constituted and is
      answerable to its staff, its volunteers (if it has any) and those for whose
      benefit it exists. To put it another way, should charities be required to adhere to some new form of code of conduct or practice in terms of their governance? Not those required separately by Company law (and for the new CIO’s) but something far more fundamental that separates and defines the difference between ordinary, non-charitable businesses and those charities that include a business function in furtherance of their charitable aims.

      To use, by way of example, what I also agree was the inappropriate use of charitable monies by the trustees of a small but important charity, to subsidise a birthday party for their Chief Executive, it should be
      noted that many organisations – charities and those that are not – may decide to use internal funds for similar practices. The ‘leaving present’ for a long-standing and valued member of staff is one example. Yet this bears further examination: in most instances this will be something unique but of no significant expense. One charity I worked for was in the habit of giving a small, but beautiful piece of engraved glassware (which the recipient would always value but had no especial cost) while colleagues were also free to contribute to a present. This followed a carefully considered (and transparent) policy agreed by the trustees and understood by all staff.

      Yet other charities, operating as quasi-businesses or not, seem to decide with impunity (and charity law allows this) that it is their unquestionable right to approve large pay increases for senior staff without any constraint. Methinks that if you want to be a charity, with the benefits that accrue, that there should be additional requirements imposed in terms of governance and operation rather than solely meeting a sometimes questionable definition of ‘charitable purpose’.

      • Patrick Taylor

        Thanks for the post. Interesting. It makes me more convinced that in the charity sector there are some greedy staff and weak or collusive trustees. I suspect a tiny minority but as we all know on bad apple can spoil the charity barrel.

        Also there is something terrible about how the term charities can mean so many things and perhaps the lay people might usefully be introduced for a commonsense game of defining various types of charity. Relief of suffering vs Royal Opera, Halo vs NT etc . The Charity Commission I think needs to grasp the nettle.

  • Guest

    I like this Rob and agree but I also feel very passionately that it’s down to Volunteer Managers to make the difference and if funds are being redirected and volunteer programmes reduced, then I think as a profession we also need to ask ourselves why? Fundraising teams aren’t always just given the money, in fact in my experience they have to fight equally hard for it. Could it be that they are just better at influencing than we are, because it’s what they are used to and what they do? The same with Manager pay rises. In most cases (and I accept there are exceptions) maybe they just made a blooming
    good case to the Board about why they are indispensable.

    Fortunately I’ve had the experience of working with organisations that have
    strategically invested in volunteering and volunteer management but this hasn’tjust happened. It’s happened because I’ve worked extremely hard to shape and influence the decisions made by Boards and SMT. I’ve aligned volunteering strategies with business aims, continually promoted the benefits of effective investment, demonstrated the impact volunteering makes, targeted, developed and nurtured relationships the right people and not giving up when the going gets tough, even when its very tough!

    Over the past 11 years I’ve heard ‘I just don’t have time’ in relation to strategically developing volunteering so many times. I know it can be hard, I’ve been there many a time but I think if you want to make time to be strategic, shape and influence, then you will.

    I don’t mean to be negative about volunteer management. I love this profession and there are some incredibly tallented, strategic and sucessfull volunteer managers out there. I just think we need to be a bit more strategically minded and up our game where we can.