Kirsty Marrins: Are charity subscription boxes a new trend in regular giving?

Possibly, but if you are developing such a product for your charity, do your research thoroughly

Kirsty Marrins
Kirsty Marrins

Over the past few years we’ve seen a boom in subscriptions, from food and meal-planning boxes to beauty, shaving kits, gym clothing, fresh flowers, stationery and online media such as Netflix. I bet you, or someone you know, has a subscription right now to Graze, Hello Fresh or Simply Cook. There’s even an entire website devoted to subscription boxes in the UK, with 80 food options alone. It was only a matter of time before charities developed their own.

Anyone who works in fundraising knows that diversification is important, but monthly direct debits are the holy grail, so creating a subscription product seems like a winning idea. Three charities have done just that. The Blurt Foundation was probably the first with BuddyBox, which was launched in 2015, Scope followed last year with Mindful Monsters, and Mind has recently launched its subscription product, Pause.

Jonathan Waddingham, a former colleague of mine at JustGiving who is now an independent product consultant, believes this could become a trend in the sector, because once one charity has success with a product or technique others tend to follow. We also seem to be a nation of subscription lovers, with an estimated 58 million of us subscribing to services. That’s nine in 10 UK adults, so perhaps the time is right for charities to get in on the subscription action.

Direct debits have always been the lifeblood of the sector, but the traditional channels for acquiring regular givers are becoming saturated. Waddingham says: "Offering a value exchange seems to be a new way to sign up more long-term supporters and potentially to decrease attrition too. Value exchanges themselves aren't necessarily new – direct mail packs have included 'freebies' such as pens for years – but what's different is that the exchange is variable, meaningful and ongoing, so there's a reason for people to keep donating every month that goes beyond just supporting a cause."

The Blurt Foundation first introduced BuddyBox in June 2015. It wanted to create a box that counters the pressures people face in modern life and which would encourage self-care. Although Blurt is an organisation that focuses on helping people with depression, the BuddyBox was created for anyone who could benefit from a boost, or a pick-me up, or a big dollop of self-care. The foundation sends out between 2,000 and 2,500 boxes a month and has even sent boxes around the world.

Mind’s new subscription product is about encouraging donors to think about their wellbeing, too, as well as recruiting new regular givers. Mindful Monsters, by Scope, is all about developing children’s life skills through a number of activities they do with their parents, creating quality time together. It’s also about giving children improved focus, a better understanding of emotions, a sense of calm and promoting kindness and gratitude.

For me, the thread that runs through all these products is the genuine value offered to the subscriber. As long as the boxes remain useful and interesting, they will retain subscribers.

If you’re thinking of developing your own subscription product for your charity, it’s essential that you do your research thoroughly. Mind looked at the trends of wellbeing products and subscription boxes in the commercial sector, and at the successes of value-exchange campaigns it had run in the past to work out if this would be viable. It took about a year from conception to the launch in April this year.

Waddingham offers some tips to get started: "If you think you have a great idea, it will need testing with your audience to see if they agree. Then you'll need to figure out how big that audience actually is and estimate how many will sign up."

You then need to factor in the cost of design, printing and fulfilling all your orders. That cost is likely to be big. And don’t make the mistake of not costing staff time in planning, delivery and marketing of the product. Lastly, Waddingham advises: "Remember that you're competing against subscription products for everything from snacks to kid’s activities and cheese toasties, so your product genuinely needs to meet a need and provide excellent value exchange. The last business is no longer trading, which is a cautionary tale in itself. If your idea isn't better than getting a cheese toastie through the post, you might need to go back to the drawing board."

Kirsty Marrins is a digital communications consultant and a trustee of the Small Charities Coalition

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