What You Should Know Before You Donate Your Hair

Health Writer

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Growing your hair for charity seems like a simple and powerful way of giving back: It costs you nothing but time and shampoo, and it’s a gift you can give feeling content that your tresses will become a hairpiece for someone facing a life-altering illness.

Many donors lop off their ponytails and mail them in, unaware of the intricacies of how these organizations operate. Hair donation charities date back to 1981, when Ohio-based Wigs For Kids was launched to serve children suffering from hair loss.

The market for these types of charities is small but spans the nation, and each has its own focus. Some, like Minnesota-based Pantene Beautiful Lengths, focus on providing hair pieces for women living with cancer. Others, like Michigan-based Children With Hair Loss, seek to help all children with medically related baldness.

With bins of hair being delivered by mail every day, some organizations end up with mounds of hair they can’t use; other charities sell some of that hair for profit. Sometimes these charities are forced to throw away moldy or loose hair. And some organizations say they lack the staffing to account for where donations end up.

Hair For A Cause

With an annual budget of over $1 million, Locks of Love is one of the largest nonprofits for hair donations that are then turned into hair pieces and donated to people suffering from hair loss. Locks of Love has served thousands of children since it gained non-profit status and began in 1997, said Madonna Coffman, founder and board president for the Florida-based charity.

Although the charity aims to help any child suffering from medical hair loss, the majority of Locks of Love’s recipients are children who are suffering from an autoimmune disease called alopecia areata, a condition that results in hair follicle death.

Alopecia areata is personal for Coffman. She suffered from it in her 20s, and her daughter lost all of her hair from the condition when she was 4-years-old.

“These children live with more than anyone else can imagine enduring day-to-day,” Coffman said. “It’s life altering. They’re reclusive. They’re bullied.”

Locks of Love uses its hair donations to produce specialized hair prostheses that are secured to the scalp with a vacuum seal for a snug fit. They can be worn during any activity and even slept in, Coffman said.

Because human hair is not as durable as synthetic hair, the hair piece may break down over time and recipients can apply for a new prosthesis every two years, Coffman said.

According to recent tax returns, Locks of Love produces about 300 custom-made hair pieces a year, which would retail from $3,500 to $6,000 each, but Coffman said she didn’t know how many were for new recipients and how many were returning recipients.

The organization has made some changes to its policy in recent years. It used to use a sliding scale to charge higher-income families for hair prosthetics. The current policy is that families either meet the income criteria to receive a free hair piece, or they aren’t able to receive one at all, Coffman said.

Locks of Love: Highly Rated But Concerns Persist

Locks of Love has scored high with several national charity evaluators, including receiving an overall score and rating of 92.7 out of 100 from Charity Navigator, an independent charity watchdog that has rated over 8,359 charities in the last 15 years.

But it has also faced criticism regarding how it accounts for and uses its hair donations.

An independent charity evaluator, Nonprofit Investor, published a critical analysis of the charity in 2013, blasting it for not having more transparent accounting for how its hair donations are used. The report used information provided in Locks of Love’s IRS tax returns, as well as information included in media coverage like the New York Times and USA Today, which included estimates for the amount of unusable hair it receives.

Nonprofit Investor found that Locks of Love may have an estimated $6 million in unaccounted for hair donations.

According to Kent Chao, founder of Nonprofit Investor, there is reason to believe these concerns still persist. After looking over Locks of Love’s recent tax returns from 2012-2014, Chao noted that Locks of Love still does not disclose the amount of hair donations it receives each year. Without accounting for how many donations it receives, sells and throws away, it’s impossible to know how its donations are being used.

Nonprofit Investors gave Locks of Love a rating of “sell,” the first time it had ever issued a negative rating after evaluating about 70 nonprofits, Chao said.

Coffman confirmed that Locks of Love doesn’t keep track of the hair donations it receives, or what percentage of hair donations are sold to offset manufacturing costs. But the organization has never had any missing hair or any missing money, she said. Locks of Love isn’t able to track hair donations because it doesn’t have the volunteers or staffing to log all of the hair it receives, Coffman said. The organization only sells hair if it doesn’t meet the criteria to be used in its own wigs, she said.

“This is why we continue to submit our books and practices to national watch groups for non-profits and why we continue to undergo voluntary comprehensive audits every year,” Coffman said. “We’ve had the highest ratings from these national organizations.”

Selling Donated Hair To Cover Costs

One such national evaluator is the BBB Wise Giving Alliance, found that that Locks of Love meets all 20 of its standards for Charity Accountability.

The BBB Wise Giving Alliance looks at a number of factors when evaluating a charity, including the organization’s financials and verifying its accountability, said Bennett Weiner, Chief Operating Officer at BBB Wise Giving Alliance. Unless there appears to be an aberration, it doesn’t evaluate how charities use in-kind donations that are part of its normal operations, such as hair donations in this case, Weiner said.

“We don’t make a judgment on the value of the charity’s program,” Weiner said. Weiner noted that according to a recent audit filed with his organization, in 2015 Locks of Love sold approximately $470,000 of hair donations that it couldn’t use. The profit made up almost half of Locks of Love’s total revenue of $1.05 million for that year, Weiner said.

Not all donors may be aware that such a volume of hair is being sold, he said. “But there may be some who are willing to donate hair simply to help them raise money, too,” he said. “Who are we to read the minds of donors and what’s motivating them?”

Dispelling Myths

After rumors began circulating on social media, Snopes.com looked into claims that the organization sells most of its donated hair for profit and charges children exorbitant amounts for wigs. These allegations were found to be mostly false. Snopes concluded:

“Locks of Love must account for their incoming and outgoing expenses each year in tax filings. If the group truly trafficked heavily in black market hair, significant discrepancies would arise in their accounting books. Despite the organization's admitted lack of record-keeping in respect to hair received (for which there is no clear monetary value), any significant revenues from the sale of hair would have appeared on their ledgers as income.”

The Donor Perspective

Hair donations are made for many reasons, and often times it’s deeply personal. Laurie Reifsteck, 40, made her donation in the belief that her hair would help a cancer patient. Her mother died of cancer, and Reifsteck wanted to give back to someone else dealing with the ravages of this disease.

After friends told her about Locks for Love, she began growing out her wavy, chestnut hair for donation. Since 2011, she has cut off her ponytail twice and sent it to Locks of Love. She has sometimes wondered what a wig made from her hair might look like on the person who received it.

She was surprised to learn that the majority of Locks of Love’s recipients aren’t cancer patients. She was also unaware that hair was sold for profit, but said she understood that charities need to cover their costs like any business.

But next time, she said she may do more research and may reconsider which organization she donates to.

“This doesn’t change my intent to grow my hair strictly for donation … I’m just one of those women who isn’t big on styling my own hair, so I have healthy hair and I don’t mind giving it to a bigger purpose,” Reifsteck said.