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How charity shops and commercial brands can work in partnership for mutual benefit

How charity shops and commercial brands can work in partnership for mutual benefit

Having read that staff at Third Sector magazine are taking over a YMCA shop for a day,  I thought I’d share my experiences of integrating charity shops with fundraising.

Before starting Changing Business with my co-director (a retail consultant), as a former corporate development manager at Help the Aged (now part of Age UK) I found that offering a partnership with the charity’s UK-wide shops network was often a very attractive proposition for companies and three of my favourite initiatives spring to mind.

Firstly, having spotted that Mars Confectionery was about to launch “New Fruitier Tunes” I contacted the product’s brand manager and persuaded her to sponsor the charity’s national Christmas Carol Appeal. With Tunes’ backing we were able to produce and position co-branded posters, song-sheets and collection boxes in all of the charity’s shops. Groups and individuals that signed-up to raise funds singing carols were also given boxes of New Fruitier Tunes to help them “sing more easily” on those cold winter evenings.

Secondly, having spotted that Fox’s Biscuits was about to launch a new range, Sunbreaks, I persuaded them to sponsor the Charity’s Eclipse Run. Here, ultra-marathon runner Rory Coleman, was sponsored to run from John O’ Groats to Land’s End, arriving just in time to witness the Eclipse. As well as funding a co-branded mini-bus, Fox’s provided thousands of samples for in-store promotions: each customer spending over £5 in one of the charity’s shops was offered a free packet of Sunbreaks plus a money-off coupon.

Finally, an ex-colleague persuaded Bovril to sponsor 250,000 of the charity’s “Keep Out the Cold” booklets that, inter alia, were made freely available throughout the charity’s shops network. Furthermore, each shop held well-attended “Bovril Mornings” where all customers and passers-by were offered a warming cup of Bovril and, again, a money-off coupon.

Each of the above partnerships increased footfall, led to other developments with the partners and were favourably covered by local newspapers. The Tunes example was featured on BBC Lifeline and subsequently used as a case study by Business in the Community. The shops made more money for the cause, the companies increased sales of their products and customers were rewarded for their support. Win-win-wins.

As with any year though, 2013 is going to be a challenging one for charity shops, but one full of opportunities for those that invest in innovative promotions, IT and, perhaps above all, fantastic customer service; offering an “all round great experience” not just another homogeneous place to pick up some cheap and interesting Bric-a-brac, vintage clothing, books or toys whilst helping raise money for a cause.

The customers may flock, but you've no black frocks!

For example, recent CAF research showed that one in three people expect to decrease their spending on new clothes. Whilst this will mean many more frugal shoppers seeking out bargains at their local charity shops, many may also hang on to high quality items that, previously, they may have donated. This could lead to a stock crisis and thus a disappointing experience for customers looking to bag a bargain.

Are decisions based on “loyalty to cause” or “quality of stores”?

Furthermore, whilst commercial retailers seem to be going bust on a weekly basis, with their premises often subsequently reoccupied by charity shops, high street saturation may become an issue. This is another factor that could lead to diminishing donations of stock for some as donors are faced with incrementing choices of causes to donate unwanted items to. How will they decide? What will motivate such decisions?

Shoppers are looking for more than an espresso, trim and Bric-a-brac browse

Indeed, though I mentioned Bovril above, it may be that charity shops also run the risk of prospective customers going down with a dose of Marmite Syndrome. Only recently did I watch a new Sue Ryder shop celebrating its opening right next to a CRUK and Age UK whilst soon to be jobless staff at the local Blockbuster, adjoined, were woefully putting up Closing Down signs. Whilst taking photos of this interesting juxtaposition, several people asked me what was going on. When I told them, one responded: “Not another charity shop. All we’ve got is coffee shops, hairdressers and charity shops!” So, some people love ‘em others don’t, or at least express concern about proliferation that clearly presents a communications challenge. As does the tricky subject of preferential business rates relief that can cause friction, especially between smaller independent shops and charity retailers. Oh, and don't get me started on bogus collection bags!

What’s for sure though is that charity shops have become a key and mostly welcome component of the retail mix and many will continue to thrive whilst commercial operators fail. That being so, they are also in a great position to cheer up dreary and decaying shopping precincts, serving not just their causes’ specific objectives but also reinventing themselves as providers of places to mingle & chat, forgers of partnerships with other local & national traders and as venues offering entertainment and the prospect of spotting a local VIP or celebrity.

To conclude, as many commercial retailers close their doors for the last time, new ones are flung open for charity shops able to adopt strategies that tackle the changing nature of our high streets and customers’ fluctuating expectations, whilst realising they will become subject to increasing competition with lots of neighbours offering similar second-hand wares for sale. Creating interesting co-promotional links and events with commercial brand owners just might help tip the balance…just imagine the footfall, and surrounding publicity, one could expect if your charity's shops were chosen to show-case the forthcoming Samsung Galaxy S4 or became the first "venues" one could listen to the latest Rihanna single?

Once again, good luck to Third Sector and YMCA with this great idea. The date's in my diary!


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John Thompson is a fundraising consultant with particular expertise in cause-marketing, sponsorship, strategy development, partnership marketing and executive recruitment. A blogger on UK Fundraising since 2006 with a background in corporate fundraising and public relations.

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