Robin Osterley - the man standing up for charity shops

Robin Osterley
Robin Osterley

Robin Osterley had been leading the Charity Retail Association for only four months when, in March, the philanthropist Gina Miller released a report criticising the efficiency of the UK's charity shops.

Osterley, who was unemployed immediately before joining the CRA, having left Supporters Direct, the membership organisation for football supporter trusts five months earlier, was bemused by the report.

It called for the government to limit the number of inefficient charity shops on the country's high streets and to slash the rate relief they received from 80 to 50 per cent. It was featured in The Daily Telegraph.

"We couldn't quite understand why Miller thought it was a suitable thing to publish," says Osterley, who - like the heads of several other sector bodies - believes the report was full of inaccuracies, something Miller denies.

Osterley says he went to see Miller and her husband Alan, with whom she founded the True & Fair Foundation, the organisation that produced the report, to try to impress upon them that their research had drawn inaccurate conclusions.

He told them they were contributing to what he describes as a "demolition" of public trust in charities, although he admits that the impact on charity shops per se has been minimal.

The meeting was cordial, Osterley says, but the Millers stood by most of the figures they had cited in their report. He says he is also none the wiser as to what their motivations for producing it were. Notably, however, he did secure a commitment from the couple that they would share any future reports they produced with the CRA and other sector bodies for them to fact-check before they were published more widely.

The meeting with the Millers appears to be the latest example of a more assertive stance by the CRA. For example, take its approach to its negotiations with local and central government. Rather than keeping quiet about such talks in an attempt to keep politicians and officials onside, the CRA has publically lambasted authorities that make life difficult for its members.


In June, Osterley issued a statement criticising Wiltshire Council for introducing a "short-sighted" policy that required charities to pay a fee for disposing goods at council waste sites. The CRA also expressed concern that new Cabinet Office guidance on national exemption orders could allow the Minister for Civil Society to withdraw the orders from charities "on a whim" - the orders allow charities to collect donated goods door to door all over the UK.

But is this a deliberate strategy?

"There are times when you need to stick your head above the parapet, when you want to impress on people by creating a lot of noise that they shouldn't do what they want to do and it will create an enormous backlash if they do," says Osterley. "But there are also plenty of other times when you have to be much more subtle about it. Very often you can get what you need that way without trying to go into emergency mode."

He says the body's approach towards Wiltshire Council over the disposal of waste issue was motivated by a "stupid" decision by the local authority. He works closely on challenging such policies with his head of public affairs, Matt Kelcher, who is a Labour councillor in his spare time.

The more robust side to the CRA's campaigning approach was evident in #MorethanaShop, a campaign against rate relief changes under consultation in Northern Ireland. As part of the campaign, which involves 16 major charities in Northern Ireland, the association secured signatures from more than 18,000 people, calling for the Northern Ireland administration to maintain the 100 per cent rate relief it currently guarantees to charities that operate there. A decision is expected to be taken by the government later this year.

Yet the association took a softer approach when it came to the restructuring of fundraising self-regulation. Indeed, the association might have expected to participate in at least some of the numerous events and consultations that have taken place over the past year, but Osterley admits that it was barely involved, largely because it felt that the reforms had little effect on charity shops.

Despite the lack of engagement, Osterley believes the new regulatory system for fundraising will clamp down on the bad behaviour that has lately caused a decline in levels of public trust. He says he is pleased to see a number of charities have ended their contracts with fundraising agencies and believes that, if more organisations did this, people would have greater confidence that further problems would not arise.

Social impact campaign

Next on the agenda for the CRA is a campaign that appears to bear all the hallmarks of one of the association's "stick your head above the parapet" initiatives. It will be launched over the next six to nine months, says Osterley, and will lead on the social impact that charity shops have on communities. He says the campaign is needed because many town centre managers have concerns about charity shops dragging down local high streets.

"They then transfer these concerns to local authorities, who in turn transfer them to MPs," he says. "So it's really important that these people understand the beneficial impact of charity shops within a town centre environment. We want to create what you might call a background hum of goodwill for charities."

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