What Happened To $6 Million Worth Of Hair Donations To Locks Of Love?

Holding nonprofits to a standard for transparency comes up against the difficulties of providing a quality service to those who need it.

In mid-May, I received an email from Kent Chao, the executive director of a two-year-old nonprofit evaluation organization called Nonprofit Investor (NPI). He told me that Nonprofit Investor was giving its first-ever negative evaluation to Locks of Love (LoL), a charity that gives custom hairpieces to children with long-term hair loss. Chao put out a 10-page report blasting Locks of Love for a lack of transparency, operational efficiency, and most damningly, producing only 317 "natural hair wigs" from 104,000 hair donations (80% of these are unusable). NPI’s estimated cost for those missing donations: $6 million. But is this really true?

Not all of LoL’s donations are viable, which NPI readily acknowledges. Locks of Love can’t use hair that’s grey, too short, moldy, wet, processed, or swept from hair salon floors. "The shaft of the hair has microscopic barbs on it, and if our manufacturer doesn’t know the direction the hair was growing in and it’s implanted upside down, it creates a tangle that can never be combed out," explains LoL President Madonna Coffman.

The 104,000 number comes from a 2004 USA Today article, but Coffman says that the charity doesn’t count incoming hair donations. NPI cites a 2007 New York Times article for its estimate that 80% of hair donations go unused because they don’t meet viability criteria. LoL has reportedly confirmed that it made 317 hairpieces in 2011, leaving 2,080 potential hairpieces that are unaccounted for.

According to Coffman—who says that Chao only asked her two questions (how much hair LoL gets per year and how many hairpieces the organizations produced since 2002) before putting out the report—these numbers don’t make sense. "I explained to [Chao] that…he needed to understand we don’t make wigs, just full cranial prostheses. They’re custom-made to fit one person and only one person," she says. In other words, LoL can’t just make hairpieces and store them on a shelf until they’re needed. The charity made 317 hairpieces in 2011 because that’s how many were requested.

When people send in usable hair to LoL, it’s sorted into bins by color and sent to a manufacturer, which also keeps an inventory of hair, as needed. All usable hair is kept on hand until it’s needed. That $6 million in hair didn’t disappear, according to Coffman. It’s just waiting to be used.

NPI, for its part, only wants increased transparency from LoL. The nonprofit writes in a press release:

NPI recommends that Locks of Love publicly disclose the amount of hair donations it receives each year, how many are used to produce wigs, how many are discarded, and how many are sold. NPI views number of hair donations accepted and number of wigs produced to be the two most critical business metrics for Locks of Love to track and disclose in order to provide accountability.

In an email conversation provided by Chao, Coffman admits that LoL doesn’t keep a list of hair donations. But, she says, "I’m curious what his agenda really is."

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