Where does thrift store cash go?

RoniLyn Sanders
RoniLyn Sanders' thrift shop, Shop 4 Paws, on 12th Street in New Westminster helps support the city's animal shelter.

A couple of times a day in the Journey Home Thrift Store on Edmonds a customer comes up to Fara Enquist with two questions:

“Who gets your funds?”

And “what are the funds for?”

It’s hard to blame them for asking. There are many thrift stores with various business models. Some are run by a specific charity, but others are operated by private people who direct a portion of the profits to charity. Then there are big operators like Value Village that pay non-profits to collect goods for their stores.

How the business has evolved over the years has muddied the nomenclature.

“The word thrift was never meant to mean charity, but in consumer’s minds it is associated with charity,” says Enquist.

In the case of Journey Home, which opened four months ago, the funds go to the Journey Home Community Association which provides supports such as housing and resettlement assistance to new refugees in the Burnaby area.

“It was a natural extension. When our refugee families come they have to find furniture and clothing so they were already looking to find donations of those kind,” says Enquist, the store’s assistant manager.

Many of the thrift stores in Burnaby and New Westminster are concentrated in the Edmonds-Kingsway-Twelfth Street corridor, with some on Sixth Street in New West. Journey Home is smack in the middle, off Kingsway across the street from Value Village. “This area of Burnaby is very ethnically diverse and one of the poorest areas of Canada. There are many thrift stores and second-hand stores so people like to come to the area. Value Village is certainly a draw. Their parking lot is full and people are walking across to our shop,” says Enquist.

Finding a niche

A few blocks away, the Burnaby Hospice Society is celebrating the sixth anniversary of its thrift store on Kingsway this week.

Diana Li, the society’s executive director, says the store provides more than 25 per cent of the society’s revenue—money needed for the overhead and administration of the organization, costs that are difficult to cover through direct fundraising.

Many people are willing to give money for specific programs, but few are willing pay toward heat and office operating costs.

“They don’t want to fund batteries, rent, paper clips. And realistically that’s just not possible,” says Li. “We run [the store] very economically, with one full-time staff member and one part-time. Other than that the store is almost run entirely by volunteers.”

Although the hospice society has about 120 volunteers that help out at the store during the year, which helps to keep its prices competitive, that’s not the case for Roni-Lyn Sanders. She employs 13 people making $10 to $15 an hour. Instead of donations, Sanders purchases items from auctions, estate sales and other sources. She has been in the thrift store business since she was 17, when she helped out in her father’s store. She says she did not draw a cheque for eight years while working three other jobs. But she had found her niche, eventually opening a store on Twelfth Street and another in Coquitlam to support the SPCA. She had been giving that organization about $30,000 a year.  Recently she decided to shift the beneficiary to the New Westminster Animal Shelter, because the SPCA doesn’t have a branch in the city. “More money is going directly to the animals instead of paying a CEO. You go to the shelter and you can see they need it so bad,” says Sanders.”

She gets frustrated because other thrift store owners say money is going to charity, but it doesn’t. “Obviously someone is taking the money somewhere along the line ... It’s frustrating because honestly we do try hard. There are good stores out there.”

Buys in bulk

Then there’s the elephant that’s not just in the room, it’s right out in the open. While Sanders struggles to support a local charity, she believes almost all of Value Village’s profits go south of the border. The chain’s headquarters is in Bellevue, Wash. The company was started in 1954 by Bill Ellison and his father Ben, who helped build the Salvation Army thrift store organization in the 1930s. The first Canadian Value Village opened in Vancouver in 1980.

According to Value Village, it buys clothes and household goods from non-profits, paying them by volume, whether the items actually hit the store shelves or not. This, says the company, gives the non-profits a predictable income and they aren’t dependent on sales. The company says while the negotiated rates are confidential they are higher than what the non-profits would get on the open market, or by selling to other resellers.

The company, which has more than 200 stores in Canada, the U.S. and Australia, says it pays more than $117 million annually to non-profit associations. Locally, its stores are connected to the Canadian Diabetes Association, Big Brothers and Developmental Disabilities Association.

It’s a juggernaut Fara Enquist of Journey Home grudgingly admits is tough to battle because a little money ends up in the hands of non-profits.

“It’s not really supporting charities. It’s truckers getting rich driving around picking up stuff.”

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