Charity donation areas could be in for a major overhaul as part of a three-year field trial aimed at improving the quality of goods handed over at drop-off points by creating more ‘champion’ donors.

Reducing the amount of unusable donations collected at these areas has been a long-term goal of the organisations that run op-shops, but measures such as surveillance and fines have not stopped the problem.

Charity organisations are still deluged by more than 60,000 tonnes of unusable product each year, placing the operators, often running on a shoe-string budget, under enormous pressure.

A project team headed by Professor Sharyn Rundle-Thiele from Griffith Business School is about to test social marketing approaches to behaviour change to address the issue.

The team recently secured a $347,153 ARC Linkage Grant to run the project, which is called, Increasing the quality of goods donated to charities: Two field trials.

Terry O’Neill, CEO of Link Vision and Vice President of NACRO.

Terry O’Neill, CEO of Link Vision and Vice President of the peak body for charity shop organisations, NACRO, described the grant as, ‘the best thing to happen to the sector for a long time’.

Mr O’Neill is a part of the project team, which also includes Dr Timo Dietrich and Dr Bo Pang (Griffith University), Mrs Bianca Gray (Qld Department of Environment and Science), Dr Christine Domegan (National University of Ireland, Galway), and Professor Rundle-Thiele.

The Federal Government funding is being met by $120,000 from the Queensland Government, and $30,000 from NACRO members, on top of their substantial in-kind support.

Professor Rundle-Thiele said increasing the quality of donations without reducing the quantity would create higher quality revenue streams for Australian charities.

“A lot of the charities in Australia are doing it tough; by increasing the quality of goods donated, charities can put more money into services by saving on the costs of processing low quality or zero quality goods handed in to them,” she said.

The project is informed by a previous report, Does your donation count or cost?, which aimed to understand the motivation of people who donate goods to charity bins.

It found that many of the people who donate to charity bins are unintentionally donating unusable items. While 40% of people are ‘champion’ donors, around half of all donors don’t understand what goods can be used by charities.

Mr O’Neill said the earlier research showed that people need more help. While a ‘big stick’ approach of surveillance and fines may always be needed for intentional dumpers, other approaches like social marketing are needed to help to show people who want to help Australia charities what they need to do.

Dr Timo Dietrich, from Social Marketing @ Griffith.

“The existing approach to reducing illegal dumping, surveillance and fines, hasn’t worked. It hasn’t prevented large amounts of unusable goods being placed at donation bins,” Mr O’Neill said.

“Overwhelmingly, what we have found there is a lack of understanding. People don’t know what’s good and what’s bad, or what goods are acceptable and what are not.”

Dr Dietrich said that the final design of the trials will be set out after a period of community consultation.

“We co-design with stakeholders and citizens to develop solutions that are supported by the community,” Dr Dietrich said. “When everyone is included in the journey, there is more uptake of the solutions.”

Investigating how to redesign and reimagine donation points backed up by integrated communications strategies to help people understand how to donate responsibly will be a focus of the studies.

Dr Dietrich says that could include a complete redesign of the donation area and reimaging the type of language used about donating to charity. For example, use of the word ‘bin’ could be discarded.

“You usually throw trash into bins,” Dr Deitrich said. “It’s a negative type of language and it may be time to look into a different approach. Through a stakeholder and citizen-led design process, this is the type of thing we will consider.”

At the end of the three-year trial, Mr O’Neill hopes to expand the successful approach nationwide

“If the program gets rolled out nationally, it will be due to the dedicated efforts of a group of Queenslanders. Once we have done the early part of the work, we can look at how we can get the other states to take up the campaign,” he said.