Images talks to four very different charities about what they really want from garment decorators. Spoiler alert: it’s not a cheap, wear-it-once tee

According to the latest figures from the Charity Commission, there are nearly 170,000 registered charities in the UK. What’s surprising therefore, given the huge diversity of charities in operation, is the ‘one size fits all’ approach taken by some garment decorators when pitching to be a charity’s clothing supplier.

Matt Lawley, head of sports events at Bloodwise, recalls his previous experiences with decorators: “I don’t think the typical suppliers that we’ve used before have necessarily understood what we want and what our supporters what. I think they just immediately think, ‘Oh, we’ve got a charity client here. They just want the cheapest, bog-standard materials’. If we’re supplying our supporters with cheap garments, it’s not going to look too good on us if they’re falling apart after they’ve run in them a couple of times, or if it looks shoddy next to someone who’s competing in a great-looking Macmillan cycle top. It’s a reflection of the charity at the end of the day, so we don’t want to be giving out kit which isn’t of a good quality.”

Bloodwise – a national charity that funds research into all types of blood cancer, as well as offering information and advice on blood cancers and lobbying the government and other bodies – uses branded garments as an incentive to reward supporters who are taking part in a sports event such as the Great North Run or the London Marathon to raise money for the charity. Once a sponsorship page is set up and the person can be seen to be actively fundraising, they then get given a Bloodwise-branded top.

As well as being used to incentivise fundraisers, this practice helps raise the profile of the charity. “It’s also to represent the charity at that event, it’s a visual representation of what we are,” explains Matt. “It’s profile-raising, and hopefully the cool, snappy designs show that we’re a relevant charity and that we have a clear message that we’re trying to get across.”

The charity has offered what Matt calls an “incentivised sports T-shirt” for at least the ten years that he’s been at the charity, but in recent years it has expanded its offering. “We’ve branched out from running T-shirts to cycling tops to bib shorts to triathlon suits. We’ve diversified to match the broad range of events [that our supporters take part in] to meet their needs. Whatever event they’re doing, we’ve got something that they can wear.”

Branded garments raise funds and profiles

The cycle top is the charity’s most popular item, he reveals. “I think we’ve produced a really good quality, striking design. It’s the one that we get the most demand for, and which inspires people to raise more money so that they can get that top.”

The current suppliers for Bloodwise are Scimitar, QSW and Kustom Clothing. Matt is part of the procurement team that ensures the kit chosen is of a good quality. “Some kit suppliers that we’ve used in the past, it’s been the kind of kit that would be worn for just one running event and then it might get thrown away. What we want is a credible piece of sports kit that they will wear again when they’re training or running at the weekend or on their commute to work, so that we get maximum exposure out of that piece of kit, and that it inspires other people to want to take part and do an event for Bloodwise as well.”

A criticism he has of the garment supplying process is the number of styles offered. “When we come round to renewing contracts, we’re literally inundated with suppliers wanting to come in and pitch, and it can be an incredibly confusing process because there are just so many different types of clothes. Take a cotton T-shirt, for example. There are so many different thickness, so many different unit costs… It’s often quite confusing in terms of what we want, which is just a decent quality, cotton T-shirt.”

Value-based decisions

Philippa Schlaefli, corporate and community fundraiser at Building Heroes, is another person who highlights the problem of choosing from the seemingly endless number of cotton T-shirts on offer. “We need things that wash well and last, so luxury is wasted on us,” she adds.

Building Heroes provides T-shirts, combat trousers, hoodie and boots for the participants on its courses

The Building Heroes charity trains and helps veterans who are transitioning out of the services to gain jobs in the construction industry by running bespoke residential training programmes. “Whilst many individuals successfully make the transition to civilian employment, a significant number struggle to find meaningful employment or accept jobs which fail to match their expertise, aspirations or true potential,” she explains. Those who take part in the course qualify with a Level 1 City & Guilds Diploma in Construction and qualify for their CSCS card; within three months of leaving, 90% of last year’s graduates progressed into jobs or further training.

Every participant on the five-week course is given a uniform to wear: two T-shirts, combat trousers, hoodie and boots. “This helps the men feel like a team, as they have never met before arriving for the residential course,” says Philippa. It also helps identify them around the large campus, and by looking smart they are also given authority around the campus. The uniform is supplied by Leigh-based HVW (High Viz Workwear), which offers a fair price and works well with the charity, reports Philippa.

While for Building Heroes it’s the hardwearing aspect of the clothes that matters, for The Word Forest Organisation, having the right accreditations is the most important aspect of the garments they offer. Tracey West, CEO and fundraiser at the environmental charity that plants trees and builds classrooms in impoverished communities in Kenya, explains: “Raw materials matter and so do working conditions. We sell 100% certified organic cotton items from the EarthPositive range. It’s the base standard from which we work and while we might not have thousands of sales because we recognise it is a bit more expensive, the human cost of producing safe, healthy cotton matters more to us than anything else. For us, it’s global health first, and money in from merchandise second.”

The Word Forest Organisation’s T-shirt, described as a “win-win, planet-pleasing, ethical-fashion statement”

The one-year-old charity launched a range of organic cotton items to help raise funds shortly after it was set up. They are sold online and at events, and are printed by Inkthreadable, which says it is dedicated to operating under ethical and environmentally friendly practices, such as paying above the national living wage, donating garments that have failed quality checks to charity, and using either 100% recyclable or biodegradable packaging for all orders.

The approach has worked. “They seem to have really chimed with funky environmentalists and tree-lovers who absolutely get the value of organic cotton and love the Climate Neutral label inside the garment. It states the item was manufactured ‘solely using renewable green energy from wind and solar power’,” says Tracey.

The charity reviews all of its suppliers regularly. “Due diligence should prompt NGOs to make, at the very least, an annual review of all their suppliers,” she states. “Whilst we are really happy with Inkthreadable, there are no exceptions. We are just coming up to the end of our first year and we do have a formal review date of late April. I must be honest though, we are really happy and another company would have to go a long way to beat their service.”

Tracey would like there to be more drop-shipping services in the UK that offer organic cotton products, while noting that any garment business hoping to impress them would have to show their commitment to caring about the health and wellbeing of the people manufacturing the items, the wildlife in the locale near their business and the planet. “We sniff out greenwash!” she adds.

The Word Forest Organisation’s babygrow is a very popular item, as is its ‘play on words’ adult T-shirt, which Tracey says always goes down well at events: “Possibly because we always tell them we plant a tree for every single item bought; it’s a win-win, planet-pleasing, ethical-fashion statement!”

Team spirit

While some charities such as Building Heroes have a very specific need for the garments they buy, a huge number now use branded garments as a way to raise both much needed funds and their profile. They are the perfect marketing tool, as well as a great way for a charity show its appreciation for the work that volunteers and others do.

Emmaus UK has branded running tops for those taking part in fundraising events

Emmaus UK supports formerly homeless people (known by the charity as ‘companions’) by giving them a home and work in a social enterprise. There are 29 Emmaus communities across the country, supporting more than 750 companions.

Dan Booth, individual giving manager at Emmaus UK, explains: “We have branded running vests and cycle tops for people who are participating in fundraising events for Emmaus, and T-shirts for volunteers, corporate partners and community fundraisers. We’ve been using them for quite a few years but more so since our new branding was rolled out four years ago. We find it motivates fundraisers, creates team spirit at events and enables us to capture great branded photos for use in our fundraising materials.”

The branded T-shirts are by far the most popular item, he says. “It enables our supporters to feel they are part of the Emmaus family, while helping them to fundraise for us. It has the added benefit of profiling our charity to a wider audience. It’s also used as a thank you from us to our supporters for raising money on our behalf.”

The charity is currently reviewing its tender process, which Dan says will take into account best value, quality, customer service and suitable accreditations. Emmaus gets quotes from several suppliers for most new specs or jobs, and regularly reviews its suppliers. For a garment decoration business to really impress the charity, he says it would need to offer detailed account management, samples where necessary, and a design portal where feedback and notes can be added. The Charity Clothing Company provides the garments for them at the moment, he explains: “They have always given us great account management and a quick turnaround on orders.”

Charities may be lumped under one umbrella term, but the reality is their needs are incredibly diverse. Those who take the time to understand what a charity wants to achieve with its branded garments, investigate who their supporters are, and offer proper guidance to eliminate the pain of sifting through hundreds of T-shirt suggestions, will stand out from the crowd in this popular sector.