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UW Religion Today: Selling Charity: Making Giving a Common Activity

February 3, 2016
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By Paul V.M. Flesher

London is an international shopping destination, with travelers flocking to well-known areas such as Piccadilly Circus, Oxford Street and Harrods department store like pilgrims to sacred shrines. These areas stand forth as consecrated precincts of consumption, full of glamour, bright lights, crowds and, of course, expensive things to buy. Few Londoners shop there regularly.

Londoners shop locally. Each borough -- whether Hammersmith, Bayswater, Chelsea or Wimbledon -- contains a shopping area or two where stores are concentrated in just a few streets. In these areas, goods are more affordable, and one can buy just about anything. Hardware stores and cobbler shops stand next to stores selling the latest in clothing fashions, mobile phones and computer technology. It is here where one finds that typical British institution, the charity shop. In these, shoppers not only consume for themselves, but also give to others.

Charity shops seem to be everywhere. There are two around the corner from the apartment we are renting during our stay here. The closest shopping area in Putney contains four or five, while the one a bit farther away in Fulham has six.

Although charities usually address problems of poverty or health, charity shops are not designed for the poor. Although most of the goods they sell are donated, and, thus, second-hand and lower-priced, their main clientele is the middle class looking for a bargain.

From the outside, they look like any local shop, although the store’s name may be the charity’s name, such as “British Heart Foundation” or “Save the Children.” Inside, most shops sell four types of used items: clothing, kitchenware, books and music. Perhaps they should be considered “recycling” shops, where items in fairly good condition find new owners.

Most shops acquire funds for their charities by applying three principles. First, sell donated items. Second, use volunteer staff, so little money is paid in wages. Third, this enables most sale income to go to the charity.

Charity shopping even has its own “hot” destinations. Several websites rate the “Best Ten Charity Shops” in London, identifying where shoppers can get the best stuff and the best deals.

A few charity shops work with new products. One such charity is Oxfam, which focuses on worldwide famine and anti-poverty projects. Many items in its shops originate with craftsman overseas, usually impoverished. Oxfam attempts to return a reasonable amount of the profits from these items to the artist and not a middleman.

The ubiquitous nature of charity shops makes the practice of charity an everyday occurrence rather than an occasional donation. “Going shopping” now includes the idea of benefiting others as well as oneself. Going in and out of charity shops on a regular basis makes them familiar; the staff gives the charity a human face, unlike solicitation letters or Internet websites.

This makes it easier for people to interact and get involved with helping the charities, on an occasional if not a long-term basis. Oxfam, for instance, has a party kit that can be picked up at the shop that helps people host a fundraising event. I recently attended a 50th birthday party thrown by three friends. They invited all their friends and relatives. Instead of presents, they used the kit to direct donations to Oxfam, raising more than $1,500. Instead of acquiring lots of (unwanted) “stuff,” they and their guests had the satisfaction of helping people who needed it more.

Few of these charities have religious connections. Given the low interest in religious matters in Britain -- fewer than 25 percent of Brits attend church regularly -- this is not surprising.

What is surprising, however, is how much charity shops and their emphasis on helping others have affected the churches. The large, old church of St. Martins-in-the-Fields, prestigiously located on Trafalgar Square, needs many millions of dollars in repair work to keep it safe for use. But, the brightly colored banners on the church’s front -- soliciting donations for this work -- equally solicit funds for the church’s poverty work. The shop in its crypt, London’s most popular site for making brass rubbings, is a charity shop whose profits go not only to the repairs, but also to poverty.

Charity, once the hallmark of religion, has developed an independent existence in Britain, one which has come back to change the shape of church fundraising as well.

Flesher is a professor in the University of Wyoming’s Religious Studies Department. Past columns and more information about the program can be found on the Web at www.uwyo.edu/RelStds. To comment on this column, visit http://religion-today.blogspot.com.


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