Men’s underpants and why charities need to think about them

Mens Underwear Paid For Stock Photo Resized For Blog

Richard Sved, founder and director of 3rd Sector Mission Control, explains how charities can spot a downturn in the economy by paying attention to the sale of men’s underpants and what that means for the sector.

Today I want to talk about men’s underpants, and what they should mean to the charity sector. OK I know that sounds a little odd, but please bear with me. I’m perfectly serious.

Mens underwear

You see, I’ve long been fascinated by a global economic indicator known as the Men’s Underwear Index. Apparently you can spot when the economy is heading towards a downturn because men stop buying underpants!

Picture the scene, if you will. Your average man notices that his underwear is looking a little tired, but says to himself, “Money’s a bit tight right now, and nobody’s going to see my underpants, so I won’t replace them this year.”

You can see why it might actually be a reliable indicator, can’t you?

I think it’s interesting because it’s about discretionary expenditure (an item that is non-essential). As underpants are not a luxury item you’d think it wouldn’t be one of the first things sacrificed when people are feeling less well off. But it is.

And here is why I think it’s relevant to charities:

We mustn’t scrimp on less ‘flashy’ basics

I think one of the reasons men might feel able to neglect ‘refreshing’ their underwear collection is that most people that they interact with in their daily lives won’t actually see their underwear. There are many roles within charities which are similarly unflashy and unseen but are of essential importance. The person who thanks our donors. The person who works in the back office to ensure that our donations are banked immediately. The person who works on the data to ensure we’re in touch with our supporters at the right time. These are less visible roles, and charities neglect them at their peril, even if money is tight.

Remember that small is just as beautiful

If this underwear indicator tells us anything, it’s that people think just as hard about smaller amounts of money. I worry that charities focus on ‘big ticket’ fundraising, while often underestimating how significant a £10 donation, say, can be to people especially if they’re feeling the pinch. Let’s celebrate and value all of our donors.

Remember the difference between discretionary and necessary expenditure

The Men’s Underwear Index is particularly interesting to me because it focuses on discretionary expenditure. Is the reality that, for many men, replacing their underpants is not a necessity until their underpants are no longer actually capable of doing their job? And as for a donation from our supporters, it’s clearly the definition of discretionary expenditure from their perspective but without this revenue we would barely be able to function. How can we make our supporters so interested in our work that they will come to feel that donating to our cause is essential to their own sense of self? The underpants analogy does actually make sense here. We need our supporters to feel as close to us as possible, and to realise the fundamental importance of their donations.

So there we have it. Charities do need to think about men’s underwear. You’ll be glad that no tasteless puns were made during the writing of this blog.

And I kept it brief.

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Richard has worked and volunteered in the charity sector for over 20 years. Prior to setting up his own company, 3rd Sector Mission Control, Richard led the fundraising function for two national charities. He is also an NCVO consultant, and has worked as the interim Head of fundraising at several national charities. Richard's key strengths lie in charity strategic planning, income generation and communications. He blogs regularly about the charity sector at