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Demos - New research finds volunteers gain new skills and offers path to employment

A major new report from Demos think tank reveals that despite mixed feelings among local communities, there is a wide reaching social impact from the charity retail sector as it plays a vital role in supporting job seeking volunteers on the path to paid employment, and helps highstreets and communities thrive.

Demos finds two-thirds of volunteers at charity shops believe the role had improved their employment prospects, made them more confident and improved self-esteem (73 per cent), and enabled them to gain new skills (75 per cent).

Demos’ polling finds that over half of the public associate charity shops with high street decline, yet charity shops continue to be a lifeline for struggling town centres, with two-thirds of managers saying that their shop fills premises that would otherwise be left vacant.

The research also found a generational divide on the value of charity shops to the high street as older people are more likely to view them as a sign of an unhealthy high street while young people see shopping at charity shops as cost effective, environmentally friendly and trendy.

Demos’ report also finds that charity shops have enormous environmental benefits; between 2015 and 2016 charity shops saved their local councils £27 million by diverting clothes and other goods from landfill.

In a major research project undertaken over 2016 and 2017, Demos surveyed 650 charity shop managers and volunteers (484 mangers, 192 volunteers), undertook a nationally representative survey, held interviews with charity retail staff and analysed data from five case study locations across the UK. Demos’ research focuses on the social benefits of charity shops and the opportunities that the charity retail sector offers to volunteers on the pathway to employment.

Demos’ research finds that charity shops play a vital role in helping their job-seeking volunteers on the path to employment. Two-thirds of volunteers say that volunteering has improved their employment prospects and 90 per cent recommend their organisation as a ‘great place to work’. Shop managers agree, with 1 in 4 saying that ‘all’ or ‘most’ of their job-seeking volunteers had moved into paid employment after volunteering. Volunteers believe that their role improves employment prospects because it made them more confident and improved self-esteem (73 per cent), while also allowing them to gain more skills (75 per cent).

Volunteers are motivated by being able to contribute to their specific charity (96 per cent), to charity in general (96 per cent) and to their communities (90 per cent).

Demos’ survey also found that shop managers enjoy good levels of job satisfaction, with three-quarters of managers feeling satisfied with their role, and of these one in five say they are completely satisfied. However, 35 per cent of managers described their role as ‘stressful’, and a further 20 per cent say that it is ‘very stressful’. The findings on stress are linked to increased professionalism in the management of charity shops over recent years, leading to more a business and target-oriented approach.

Despite over half of the public associating charity shops with high street decline, and exactly half thinking a ‘healthy’ high street should contain fewer charity shops, Demos’ research showed that charity shops continue to be a lifeline for struggling town centres, with two-thirds of managers saying that their shop fills premises that would otherwise be left vacant. In towns where economic conditions are improving since the recession, charity shops are playing an active role in supporting high street rejuvenation by ‘specialising’ in certain products such as books, music or electrical goods, converting them into ‘destination’ shops. Demos’ polling of the public found that three-quarters support the status quo of giving charity shops mandatory and discretionary relief on business rates.

Younger people are far less likely to associate charity shops with high street decline than older people (42 per cent of 18-24 year olds compared to 72 per cent of over 65s). These demographic differences are a result of younger people being more likely to view shopping at charity shops as cost effective, environmentally friendly and ‘trendy’.

Demos’ research also finds charity shops have enormous environmental benefits; between 2015 and 2016 charity shops saved their local councils £27 million by diverting clothes and other goods from landfill, which would cost councils £82.6 per tonne in landfill tax. In that period alone charity shops reduced carbon dioxide emissions by 6.9m tonnes

The report finds that charity shops continue to provide vital funding to their parent charities, generating significant profits of £270 million a year. In the context of the Brexit vote which threatens the £200 million EU funds that UK charities receive annually, this contribution is even more crucial.

Comments taken from interviews with volunteers and shop managers:

One of the main things they do is give you some confidence back, you get such a hard knock all the time looking [for work], it’s nice to go to somewhere like that, you get recognised for the fact that you are a good worker. (Volunteer)

I think charity shops have changed… dramatically in the last couple of years. They’re starting to become a more trendy to shop in and more of a contender on the high street… than they perhaps used to be. We’ve very much gone away from the junk shop title that charity shops used to have, and I think for that reason we’re getting a different customer base because they’re now treating the shop as a proper shop rather than coming in for a quick bargain. (Senior staff)

The report’s author, Researcher at Demos, Peter Harrison-Evans said:

“Our research shows that the charity retail sector adds value to local communities across a range of environmental, social and economic impact areas, including supporting nearly a quarter of a million volunteers, and reducing annual carbon emissions by 6.9 million tonnes through recycling and re-use. Despite this it seems clear that the sector still faces somewhat of an image problem, with exactly half of those polled wanting to see fewer charity shops on the high street. That said, Demos finds that this view is strongly mediated by the use of charity shops, and also demographic factors – with younger people far more likely to see them as valuable assets in their area.”

The full paper and methodological notes are available here.

The project was supported by the Charity Retail Association and the Carnegie Trust.

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