Charity shops are part of the rhythm of everyday life: vibrant social hubs where people can work, volunteer, donate and spend.
Older people make up the fabric of charity retailing. Their experiences, skills and knowledge are built into the foundations of these shops. The sector has an established role among this group – it has long been associated with the stereotype of the “post-retirement” volunteer – the older woman selflessly giving up her time to “do good”. Years ago, charity shops were run and managed on a purely voluntary basis, staffed almost entirely by older people.
However, the sector has undergone a significant transformation since its inception. It has been progressively “professionalised” and is increasingly driven by commercially-orientated values (profitability, rationality and competitiveness, for example). Charity retailers are adopting strategies more readily associated with the for-profit sector and big changes are happening at the shop floor level. Shop managers are now being paid, fittings and fixtures improved and more new products being sold.
A shift in charity shop culture
While volunteers remain integral to the business model, and those aged 60 or over continue to be the demographic most likely to participate, the shops are no longer primarily places run by, and for, older people.
This is not to say professionalisation is a straightforward or inherently negative process – it can take many forms. This report, for instance, shows the sector is now in a better position to support those with ill health or disability.
The transformation has also generated significant social, environmental and economic benefits. Charity shops now raise over £295 million for vital lifesaving services, and save local councils £27 million in landfill taxes every year, for instance.
But have these changes across the sector also come at a cost?
As a result of the move towards professionalisation, older volunteers have been reported to experience less flexibility in their roles and feelings of disempowerment. With advertising and recruitment moving online, they are also increasingly less likely to be able to access and apply for roles.
To make matters worse, the COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated this threat to older people’s engagement. Charity shop volunteering has become intense and complicated during the pandemic. Handling donated stock and working in close proximity to others can now, naturally, feel unsafe. With COVID-19 presenting a higher risk to those aged over 70, thousands of older volunteers have not yet returned to their charity shop roles even during periods of more relaxed lockdown rules. This has left shops critically understaffed and, in some cases, facing temporary closure. The pandemic is rapidly pushing the shops to promote and rely on the involvement of younger volunteers in order to survive.
Charity retailers are in an undeniably difficult situation. After losing millions of pounds during lockdowns, they will inevitably be forced to employ ever more intense tactics of professionalisation in a bid to try and recoup some of these funds.
This is, arguably, the biggest challenge they have ever faced. In a landscape of decimated and dwindling social care services, the push for charity retailers to “fill the gaps” is more intense than ever. But it is crucial that they work to achieve this while engaging in inclusive and age-friendly volunteering practices. They should offer more flexibility, work to understand and embrace diversity and make use of volunteers’ individual strengths
If they are too short-sighted in their focus, if the pressures and expectations of professionalisation become more extreme, there is a bleak possibility that this situation could become a turning point for the inclusion of older volunteers.
Of course, volunteering is fundamentally a choice. Older people should not feel pressured or obliged to return to work. But without action, strategies, support and more emphasis on inclusivity and compassion, the sector may risk excluding this demographic in the long term.
In years to come, charity retailers will struggle without the support of older people. But this is also about older people’s access to meaningful engagement, not just how useful their labour is to the sector. Charity shop volunteering is not a “one-way” act of altruism for this group. My ongoing research indicates that charity shops have a rich and meaningful role in the social lives and social connections of older people. They act as a home away from home, providing a context for experiences of community, belonging, frivolity and friendship.
Organisational decisions on the horizon will undoubtedly pave the future of charity retailing, and retailers must now work to ensure their effectiveness at both driving up profits and promoting inclusivity in their volunteer management.
Charity shops need to remain connected to those not able to return to their volunteer role in the short term, provide increased support to voluntary teams (as well as empowering staff to do so at the local level), and, crucially, refrain from regarding older people as one homogeneous group. In fact, the sheer diversity of this population suggests that they should be encouraged to engage with the sector in ways that they feel comfortable, and at a time that’s right for them.
Siobhán Kelly does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.