We all want to support rather than burden an organisation when it comes to charity. However, the donor must do more than just dump items from a closet or pantry into a bag and drop it off. Understanding the difference between a “good” and “bad” donation will dramatically alter the gift’s impact.
Labelling bags and letting staff know if the contents are seasonal (warm gloves on a cold day) — or perishable — matters.
“Sometimes people don’t ... screen what they’re giving,” says Michelle Whittaker, communications manager at Manna Food Centre, an emergency food pantry in Gaithersburg, Maryland, that supplies fresh and shelf-stable food to 60,000 participants annually.
You might think it’s better to have a torn shirt than to have none. But for the people we’re serving, our work is based on relationships built on trust and mutual respect
“When someone donates bags of food from home, or holds a food drive at work or school, staff and volunteers can’t always screen what comes in as it arrives.” Manna needs to refrigerate perishables immediately. “Get them to us while we’re open. Don’t leave them in our overnight donation bin.”
Donors should evaluate the condition of their donations. If an item is damaged or dirty, only the largest non-profit have the capacity to mend, clean or recycle it. If items are shoddy, they will be tossed by small charities. Stained clothing can go to Goodwill, which sells to textile recyclers.
No damaged goods
Damaged items “don’t work so they get thrown out,” says Scott Schenkelberg, president and chief executive of Miriam’s Kitchen, a non-profit working to end chronic homelessness in the District. “You might think it’s better to have a torn shirt than to have none. But for the people we’re serving, our work is based on relationships built on trust and mutual respect. If we were to offer people items that are obviously not respectful, that can damage the relationship.”
Disposing of unusable items costs the non-profit time and money. “Say we sort through a bag of food and find a fresh bar of soap in the bottom,” Whittaker says. “That’s ... not an item we distribute. Disposing of that bar of soap delays our getting food to participants because we have to implement a process of getting the item picked up or dropped off with a partner, which takes time and resources.”
Mark Bergel is founder, president and chief executive of A Wider Circle. His organisation distributes 12 million pounds of furniture and household items to residents in need each year but also makes daily trips to discard unusable items. “We can’t use items with rips or stains, or that are incomplete,” he says. “Toys need to have all the pieces, or we have to dispose of them.”
While non-profit never want damaged goods, poor-quality items are particularly problematic during the holidays, according to Sheryl Brissett Chapman, executive director of the National Centre for Children and Families. She says her clients are in severe emotional stress. For them, the holiday season is particularly fraught.
Holidays trigger so much grief and sadness for folks who can’t take care of themselves. They are the worst for people with no money, whose lives are unstable, who’s had a person they relied on disappear or betray or hurt them.
Not only do the items need to be in good condition, but they must suit the nonprofit’s client base. Miriam’s Kitchen was so overwhelmed with unusable items that it stopped accepting random in-kind donations, referring people instead to its Amazon wish lists or asking them to respond to targeted requests for needed goods.
“We didn’t get much that was ridiculous,” Schenkelberg says. “The problem was getting reasonable items that weren’t appropriate for our population. The vast majority of our clients are men living outside. We have little need for suits or women’s or children’s items.
Someone would clean out a closet, and we’d be inundated. We’d spend a lot of staff or volunteer time sorting through bags of donations. It stressed out staff to have to triage the stuff and it taxed our physical space. We’d give usable items to the Salvation Army, but that’s again costing us time and resources and probably wasn’t the donor’s intent.”
Practicality and usability
Once a donor determines a gift is timely, in good condition and suitable for the targeted non-profit, donors should know that “practicality” means more than just “usable.” Non-profit want donated items that both meet clients’ basic needs and bring them dignity.
Chapman says that a “good” donation is what you’d give to a loved one, friend or neighbour. “I want gifts that inspire and give hope, that let people know that someone cares about me who doesn’t even know me.”
Bergel agrees. “For me, poverty is about our humanity. A good donation is one you’d be proud to give someone, when you look them in the eyes. That means no rips, stains or excessive wear. Anything you would like in your home, we’ll distribute.”
Schenkelberg rejects the notion that “beggars can’t be choosers” as demeaning. “The people we serve have so few choices in their lives,” he says. “They’re told to go here, there, all over for resources. In fact, they might most need the power of making a choice — even a small one — but the choice has to be a positive and meaningful one. Giving them a choice between a red shirt and a blue shirt is empowering. Giving them a choice between a torn red shirt and no shirt isn’t a choice at all.”
The bottom line is simple: As when giving any gift, focus on the recipient. And there’s no need to guess at what to give: posting wish lists online is standard practice. Just search the charity’s name, followed by “wish list” or “donation list.” If an item is not on the list, pick up the phone to make sure it will be a welcome gift.
Amy Freeman is a columnist whose work has previously appeared in The Washington Post, Good Housekeeping, and other publications