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Faith, Hope (Fraud!) and Charity

Updated on October 5, 2009

Much clothing is diverted overseas

Bundles of used clothing ready for export by "The Attic" Co.  (Photo credit, The Attic)
Bundles of used clothing ready for export by "The Attic" Co. (Photo credit, The Attic)
Prince Charles' friend, Robert Higdon.  "Charming, adorable" and perhaps well overpaid.
Prince Charles' friend, Robert Higdon. "Charming, adorable" and perhaps well overpaid.

Used stuff selling for more than new.

Used shirts £5, used books, £2.50, used leather coats as much as £50, second-hand sneakers, £7, furniture for hundreds of pounds. No, not Primark, Mataland or K-Max, these prices were found in my local charity shop and I think it‘s getting a bit out of hand!

But you daren’t open your mouth and say so. What a piker! It’s all for a good cause, doncha know.

A few short years ago, all this stuff was much cheaper, and real bargains and collectables were to be found. Not only did the charity shop help the charity for which is was set up, but it also provided bargains for people like state pensioners, the unemployed and new arrivals, etc. Even traders could find the odd collectable and make a few bucks themselves upon reselling it. But since everyone became a collectables and antique trader by way of eBay, fuelled by information provided on “Flog It,” et al, the charity shops have called in their own experts and few items of value get past their scrutiny. Back then, too, charity shops were usually found in slightly seedy, low rent premises in the side streets. Not today, bro: they have mostly gone upmarket and moved into the high rent streets, except for a few die-hard charities who sell mainly rubbish.

If all this seems a bit away from their charter, what about all the new stuff filling half the shop‘s shelves? How do they get away with that one? I thought to be a charity and pay much less or no tax, you had to sell mostly second hand goods? Wrong again was I?

Trouble is here, you can buy new clothes in many cases for the same or slightly more than the price at your friendly neighbourhood charity. Maybe the brands aren’t as good as some of the used brands being sold, but it’s crisp and new, and the shops have had to pay for this stuff and put their mark-up on it. They don’t get given the shirt they are selling for a fiver in Primark; they may well only be making a few pennies on it, not 100% profit.

Charity shops are more a British and US institution than anywhere else in the world. Britain has around 8,000 such emporiums, the US must have more, but the prices they charge, I believe, are more closely controlled and they have nowhere near as many different concerns. (Their national chain is called "Goodwill.")

Next question, where does all this money go? Are the employees volunteers or on wages? Where do you find out the answers to all this and more?

The Association of Charity Shops (Google) doesn’t have the answers I hope to find, but just by glancing at what is on offer, you can see what a huge money spinner these places are. There are hundreds of support businesses set up to help them, from collecting the stuff they no longer want, to assisting them with legal matters, such as how to obtain gift tax relief of some sort, to collecting their refuse, finding employees or managers, and much, much more. There are loads of wholesalers touting their goods, such as sweet retailers; dry-cleaners, I suppose for the valuable coats and dresses, emergency shop front repairers. Hmmm, that one makes you think, doesn’t it!

Did you know that only about 15% of the clothes you generously give actually reach the charity shop racks to be sold? The rest is bundled-up and sold on to rag men for pennies per kilo, who, in turn, sell it on to be sold in the streets of Third World countries. I know this is so, because I was involved in an exposure about this very subject in Mexico in 2001. This is actually bad for the countries concerned for a couple of reasons. One, it is often sub-standard and not super clean. Two, it actually damages the clothing industries of those countries who are trying to sell new, cheap clothing to their citizens.

If we are interested in some sort of control on where our once loved items go, we are advised not to use clothing dump bins for charities, as this often goes directly to the rag man without the charity shops even seeing it, and this applies to many who collect from your door, too. (Or the money goes straight into their pockets; a do-it-yourself charity!). It’s best to take the garments to the shop directly and give the employees an idea of what they cost and other details.

Did you also know that the larger charity chains actually operate their own websites? It’s often hard to find out who they are, as they are not particularly transparent. But we find out that approximately one third of the money they make by selling merchandise on these sites actually goes to the beneficiary, so, in theory anyway, this seems a better deal all round that actually buying from a charity shop.

Yahoo Answers tells me “Most charity shop workers are paid, the volunteers usually only work a few hours per week and are mostly used for stock taking and filling, etc.” The plot thickens; I am beginning to see why these prices have skyrocketed lately.

“Intelligent Giving” says that a survey of 60 charity shops showed that only 18 pence in the pound actually gets to the beneficiaries! the rest goes on the expenses of running the business and would include wages paid to administrators and managers. In fact, they say, quite a few charity shops run at a loss, effectively taking money away from the needy! I am afraid some of my fears are being realized.

Paul Theroux, in his excellent book, “Dark Star Safari,” written about his trip to Africa fairly recently, is cynical about charities as applied to that country, including peace-workers, who he cannot abide, and makes a very effective case why. I suggest that book for anyone who thinks we are doing a whole heap of good in the Dark Continent by the stuff they kindly donate. Thoreau really know the place; speaks Swahili and/or Afrikaans and has lived there on several occasions. It seems African states need to take up their cudgels and go it alone to ensure a future with dignity, as is evidenced by a successful and democratic Ghana today.

But back to our own situation for a moment. Has anyone noticed a deterioration in the attitude of some charity shop employees? Not the volunteers, they are unfailingly cheerful and pleasant, but those doing the busy work behind the scenes hardly have time to stop and chat. Are they marching to a different agenda? Are they being pressured by the folks at the top who may be getting a sizeable portion of this very large pie? Is it true what some say that some shops are enriching the licensees and where can we find out the truth about this.

Well, a site called “Slade” found out that two well-known charities employed directors making in excess of £200,000 a year! They justify this by saying that they do a tremendous job, blah, blah, blah. But 200 big ones a year? And we can assume that many more in the country are pulling down that sort of money and more. And that’s just one person in the organization!

I have just skimmed the surface of this quandary of what, how, when, where and to whom we should give. I don’t suggest for a moment that we rule out donating to our favourite charity; after all, a piece of cake is better that none and the selfless volunteers should be praised not condemned. But I reckon it’s high time these shops remember that the things they attach such a high price-to are donated and don’t cost them one thin dime.

Don’t price yourselves out of the buyer’s market; think of the millions barely making it at home, too, who depend on the things you sell being affordable. Remember the goose and the golden egg.

Late Notes:

There have been complaints recently by the press that the standards of transparency throughout the charity sector have been exceedingly low, especially in regard to director’s remuneration, offered bolstered by large expenses.

The focus on Prince Charlie’s Foundation regarding the salary of its Washington director, Robert Higdon, by the Mail has caused many to gasp at the £310,000 annual figure, only slightly less that the amount the charity had available for disbursement. Cynics have said Higdon, who Charles and Camilla regard as being “Charming and adorable,” provides functions where the royal couple can meet other influential Americans, not all being A-listers.

Oxfam boss, Barbara Stocking, makes £90,505 a year and this is considered modest by some observers, such as “Intelligent Giving,” who intimate she is under-paid!

“Food and Friends” CEO, Craig Shniderman is paid about £250,000 (actually $357,000) in the US plus undisclosed expenses.

No wonder these places are selling so much new merchandise, refusing in many cases to take in any more used stuff, and charging far too much in the opinion of many buyers.

What a sickening world we live in today. Capitalism’s hog-like greed gone completely astray. No wonder we have a recession in Britain and the USA, and what a joke to say its nearly over.



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      diogenese 6 years ago

      That is the case Braconone. Every time you switch the TV on there is another of them, "Give, give, give." They are utterly shameless, only the tiniest fraction of the money gets to the needy - if at all. People really need educating about charities. Bob

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      Braconone 6 years ago

      We do not give to charitys now a days because we refuse to put a single penny towards greedy chief executives pay. We take animal food every so often to the local dog shelter. what ever so-called charity you donate to is in fact a business who take at least 85% of your donation for themselves. This is a fact.