Many people have been busy decluttering under lockdown. And with many charity shops getting ready to reopen, Oxfam have asked people to call ahead before donating goods as a result of likely limited storage space. But the high demand for the return of charity shops reminds us of the vital role that the charity retail sector plays in both our high streets, and the world of volunteering – as well as the inevitable need for the sector to adapt during this period of change. Once upon a time, they were seen by some as a threat to competition on our high streets – yet Demos research found this certainly wasn’t the case. Back in 2016, we looked at the immense social benefits that charity shops deliver, and recommended steps to build on progress in the sector.
Read Shopping for Good here, or the conclusion below.
Conclusions and recommendations
The charity retail sector has grown, professionalised and diversified rapidly, at a time when other areas of the economy have faltered. In recent years, the pace of charity retail’s growth has slowed somewhat, but this reflects a maturing sector that has deepened and broadened the social value it creates in the years since our initial study. As well as continuing to provide a substantial and comparably stable income stream to support the social impact of parent charities, charity retailers increasingly recognise their capacity to bring wider social benefits to their local community.
Our findings show that making a trip to your local charity shop is no longer the preserve of a particular generation or income group, but an activity engaged in by a cross-section of British society. As charity shops have broadened their offer and customer base they are increasingly able to add to, rather than detract from (as some stereotypes may suggest), a vibrant mix of retailers on the high street, and to provide a range of community benefits beyond their core retail function.
The benefits associated with volunteering represent arguably the greatest source of social value generated by the sector. Charity retailers currently provide nearly a quarter of a million volunteering places across the country, diverse in their content, duration and beneficiaries. Volunteering in charity retail helps young people to gain life and work skills, provides retirees with opportunities to socialise, enables disabled people to showcase their assets in a supportive environment, helps jobseekers to rebuild their confidence and transition into paid work, and gives people within the criminal justice system a chance to give back and re-integrate into the community. Volunteers are overwhelmingly satisfied with their role, and it is difficult to think of another area of the charity sector that provides volunteering opportunities that meet as wide a range of individual circumstances, needs and motivations.
Charity managers – who receive economic and social benefits from having access to stable, local work – are the engines of social value within their individual stores. Managers are responsible for meeting sales targets and they influence the profits generated for parent charities, their management style shapes the experience of volunteers, and their ideas and activities enable new services and campaigns within their stores to be delivered. For the charity retail sector to continue to grow economically and socially it needs to continue to invest in people who drive social value locally.
Below, we offer recommendations for policymakers and the charity retail sector based on our research.
The CRA should develop a sector-wide campaign to promote volunteering in charity shops, backed up by a framework to monitor the social benefits gained by volunteers.
Our study found that volunteers within charity retail are overwhelmingly satisfied with their roles, and report substantial benefits across a wide range of areas. Our research demonstrates that volunteers can get very different things out of their role depending on their age and motivations for volunteering (eg, young people report skills and work experience development, and older people report the social aspect of volunteering). Given the vast size of the charity retail volunteer base this is arguably the biggest area of social impact generated by the sector.
However, despite improvements in recent years the volunteer base is still heavily skewed towards women and older people. Although securing an adequate supply of volunteers has been a perennial challenge for the sector, charity retailers are more concerned about this than at any time in the past decade, according to Civil Society’s most recent Charity Shops Survey. (1) There is therefore significant scope to broaden the volunteer base, to meet retailers’ rising volunteer recruitment demands, and to expand the social impact generated by the sector.
The CRA should therefore develop a campaign to promote volunteering in the sector, based on what we know about the benefits that current charity shop volunteers report. This campaign can take inspiration from some of the targeted approaches that individual retail chains are using to attract particular types of volunteers (eg, youth social action or employability skills development).
Underpinning any campaign should be guidance for retailers on how to measure the social impact of volunteering in their stores. While this report helps to demonstrate impact at an aggregate level, monitoring of volunteer outcomes at the level of individual retailers remains patchy. A few simple and standardised metrics could dramatically improve monitoring in the sector, and significantly boost individual and collective reporting on volunteer outcomes.
The CRA should stimulate discussion on how to promote greater engagement in the sector from men.
Our research on the profile of donors and shoppers found that gender is the only demographic factor that significantly influences engagement across both areas, with women significantly more likely to donate and shop.
There is therefore significant scope to expand the customer and supporter base by attracting more men into the sector. The sector should consider ways to promote male products, such as male formal wear, perhaps trialling specialist pop-up stores targeting male customers. The sector could also develop targeted campaigns to boost donations from men – these might be particularly effective where the parent charities are focused on male-dominated health conditions or causes. Our polling found that donating and shopping are likely to reinforce engagement, so efforts to promote one activity are likely to lead to an increase in the other.
Charity retailers should ensure that there are structured routes for volunteers to learn and develop through internal progression opportunities and/or externally recognised qualifications and training programmes (eg, NVQs and apprenticeships)
Our research found that volunteers, particularly those looking for work, benefited from structured approaches to induction and training. Charity retailers should develop a range of structured volunteer programmes that target specific groups or lengths of service, have specific learning or development outcomes, and are aligned with some form of internal or (preferably) external accreditation.
One approach introduced by several retailers whom we spoke to has been to develop ‘advanced’ volunteering roles, which enable volunteers to take on more responsibility and develop more specialist skills in a particular area of charity retailing. Charity retailers should consider developing a range of these roles focused on different areas of specialism (eg, shop floor management, visual merchandising, online retail) to enable volunteers to pursue areas of interest and deepen their skills in the process. These roles should clearly delimit the additional responsibilities and competencies required, while also being careful not to undercut the role of any paid staff.
The job prospects of jobseekers can be boosted significantly if they have an opportunity for their new skills to be recognised through an external qualification. Many charities provide the opportunity for volunteers to work towards an NVQ (eg, NVQ in Customer Service), and we encourage those retailers that currently don’t offer this to consider doing so. Charity shop managers need some guidance to support volunteers working towards NVQs; as the course content and assessment is provided by an external exam board the additional input required from an individual shop is limited.
Finally, there are legislative changes that may enable charity retailers to access funding to take on apprentices from 2018. This provides a significant opportunity to develop a specific type of structured programme to aid skills development. Charity retailers should start to assess the scope for providing apprenticeships within their shops, and to consider the content of any scheme, and the potential benefits and costs associated with doing so.
To maximise the take up of, and benefits from, work experience placements Jobcentre staff should set up clear communication channels with local charity shop managers about the voluntary nature of placements.
Our findings show that if positive working relationships can be cultivated between staff in local Jobcentres and charity shops by providing work experience placements, there can be significant benefits for jobseekers, charity shops and the public purse. However, despite there being progress in recent years, charity shop managers who have had negative experiences when dealing with work experience placements are often unwilling to engage further with their local Jobcentre.
To enable better joint working, Jobcentre staff should ensure they have clear lines of communication with local charity shop staff, ideally giving responsibility to a specific member of staff to liaise with nearby charity shops around work placements. Jobcentre staff should make clear to charity shop staff and jobseekers that jobseekers are referred to work placements entirely voluntary.
Significant progress has been made at a national level through the national portfolio of charity retailers of Jobcentre Plus, which provides national level agreements with large charity retail chains. Where possible Jobcentre Plus should encourage more national retail chains to sign up to the national portfolio to help increase the number and quality of work experience placements across the sector.
Charity retailers should consider conducting wide ranging reviews of shop managers’ pay and benefits to ensure that the sector can continue to attract new talent, and motivate existing managers to grow the economic and social impact of their shops.
The Fabian Society’s recent taskforce on the future of the high street retail sector has found that British retailers are at a crossroads as they face rising costs and increased competition – some are responding to this by attempting to further reduce labour costs, while others are investing in more highly skilled, highly engaged workforces to improve productivity and enable them to forge stronger relationships with customers. (2)
With rising costs from rents and near-term increases in the National Living Wage (set to reach £9 an hour by 2020), charity retailers are to some extent at a similar crossroads. And though most shop managers are satisfied in their role, only a minority say that they feel they are ‘rewarded appropriately’ for their contribution. This finding arguably provides animpetus for charity retailers to consider the longer-term sustainability of their remuneration packages.
Clearly the implications of any significant changes to pay and benefits need to be carefully considered, particularly in their impact on the funds that charity shops generate for parent charities. However, the sector is in a different place from where it was a decade ago, and if charity retailers want to continue to professionalise and diversify, and deepen and broaden their social impact, they need to consider how they can best engage and motivate existing managers, and attract new talent into the sector.
Charity retailers should develop and promote in-store services related to the mission of their parent charity or wider community need.
In our 2013 report we argued that charity shops could provide an important gateway for services delivered by their wider parent charity, or more broadly provide services or information that meet the needs of the local community. Our 2017 findings show that though there have been some ‘bright spots’ of innovation in the past four years, little progress has been made at an aggregate level. For example, while 61 per cent of the public said they had purchased an item from a charity shop in the last 12 months, just 1 per cent of people said that they had ever ‘found out about how to use the charity’s services or accessed services which helped me’ at a charity shop.
Clearly, it is important that individual shops maintain a focus on their core function – selling donated stock to raise funds for their parent charities –but our findings suggest that an opportunity is being missed to develop more of an outward-facing community role. In our interviews with charity retailers we heard stories of members of staff actively promoting their shops in the community and developing in-store events to raise the profile of their charity and bring the local community together. Charity retailers should consider introducing more formalised community engagement roles, as either a standalone position or components of volunteering or retail managers’ job descriptions. This could enable charity retailers to assess the role of their shops in delivering social value within the wider community more comprehensively.
(1) Civil Society, Charity Shops Survey 2016.
(2) Tait, At the Crossroads.