I’m upset. I got a call yesterday from a friend of a friend. “Could you guys use some books for the homeless kids you tutor? We want to do a book drive but I wanted to see if that would truly help.” I wanted to hug her over the phone. Why? Because she asked. Why am I upset? Because that never happens.
There’s a misnomer in philanthropy that the act alone is enough. Wrong.
You can go through the motions but if you don’t stop, think, communicate and make a conscious effort to provide what’s truly needed, you’re often doing more harm than good. There’s a serious point here and I hope my pent up teenage-emo-angst doesn’t muddle it.
I’ve heard countless stories of organizations accepting people’s old stuff that they drop-off. The organization graciously accepts the items, smiles at the donor and walks them right out the back door to the dumpster or takes them to Goodwill or Salvation Army. Many homeless shelters, addiction centers and other human service organizations get cars regularly pulling up to the back door with a trunk load of clothes.
They’re old, dirty, stained, ripped, or really, really ugly (think Aunt Ruby’s 1984 neon Christmas sweater…with kitty cats on it). And you say ‘at least it’s something’. It’s a cop-out. The fact that you didn’t want it or need it isn’t the problem. It’s the expectation that a person who’s down on their luck, has no education, maybe made some bad choices (who hasn’t), deserves to try and get by on it? And then what do we do? We laugh/judge when we see a homeless guy wearing stuff that doesn’t fit, has holes in it or reminds us of Aunt Ruby at Christmas.
The same goes for equipment. A friend’s organization once had someone drop off a car load (literally) of broken desktop organizers, a dozen ginormous adding machines and horribly bent hanging file folders. Because he serves the community, should he have to use these items or get by on phones that are missing the number 8, computers with old green-screen monitors, or office chairs with a wheel missing?
How do we fix it?
Communicate. Organizations can do a much better job of communicating to their supporters and the public what they need/want and what they don’t.
- Create a wishlist on your website. Keep it updated and drive traffic to it.
- Put up a whiteboard in the office so staff can communicate to fundraisers/marketers what the most urgent needs are and those that answer the phones, door and email are informed
- Give people a ‘script’ of how to politely decline a donation. “Because we’re in such a great community, our library is full. If you’d like to help our kids specifically, we need X, Y or Z. If you’re looking to share the books, I’d suggest trying organization X, Y or Z.”
- Create solid gift acceptance policies so you don’t blindly accept a donation of real-estate because you think it’s worth millions and would greatly expand what you could do for the community – only to find out later it has 27 old oil tanks buried on it, you’re stuck holding the liability & clean-up costs (in the millions), the land is unusable and no one will take it off your hands (friend’s true story).
We all can do a better job of calling ahead, and thinking through what we are giving.
- When you clean out your closet or garage, make a pile of ‘good quality stuff that someone truly may need/want’
- Call the organization that you think could use it before you stop by
- Don’t be offended if they do not accept, loose the ‘at least it’s something’ mindset
I told that caller I appreciated her question very much and I’d get right back to her. When I asked our program staff, they said “We’ve got a ton of books that no one reads. So yes, we can accept books as long as they are what kids would actually read. Whatever their kids like reading, our kids would like reading.” I passed the message along.
If you’ve got Twilight books, Diary of a Wimpy Kid or something your kids like reading and they’re done with it or have duplicates, we’d greatly appreciate it. If you have The History of Wisconsin: Encyclopedia Britannica that’s missing 3 of the 8 chapters…and the cover, then no-thank-you.