Thank you for your trash

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.

Oooh! Little Johnny's gonna love this!!
Oooh! Little Johnny’s gonna love this!!

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.

34 thoughts on “Thank you for your trash

  1. As usual, great article Nathan! I think anyone who works in the nonprofit field has had this same frustration. Likewise, for anyone who has tried to find a home for gently used items that they feel would be wasteful to simply toss in the trash. My husband and I experienced this with our graduate school books that we could not sell back. In case you or other fellow alums are interested, a friend directed us to Shortridge Magnet High School for Law and Public Policy, which graciously accepts and needs SPEA and Law textbooks.

    1. Thanks Stephanie – yes, it sounds like this has struck a chord with folks today. You’re also right – hate to fill up landfills with stuff someone may actually be able to use. I’m a nerd so I still have and reference my grad-school books but maybe the COP Alumni group could collect from alumns? I’ll get on it 🙂

  2. Love your ability to articulate your perspective. And I appreciate that you see this as an opportunity for donor education! I think it is the nonprofit’s responsibility to work alongside their supporters and explain the program needs, the role of donations, and where they can have the best impact. Nonprofits shouldn’t feel like a person’s alternative (and cheaper) option to renting a dumpster; that is not philanthropy!

  3. So happy that we put up our Holiday Wish List on our blog site BEFORE I read this post, Nathan. I felt ahead of the curve haha. You can check it out here –

    But, I couldn’t agree more. I like how you spoke about the two-way street and communication. A conversation is essential so that both parties come away from in-kind donations feeling that those items will no doubt be put to good use!

    Great post!

  4. Love, love, love this post! One point that was incredibly spot-on (and sad) was about organizations that throw out or re-donate unusable donations. I worked at Goodwills in both New York City and Chicago and you’d be shocked and dismayed at the number of donations *we* couldn’t use or sell! Some stuff can be sold for salvage or sent overseas (like those 2011 Texas Rangers World Series Champion t-shirts)…but too much other stuff simply goes to waste.

    1. I can only imagine Matt. I’ve been to the Goodwill outlets where they basically sell the bottom of the barrel stuff by weight. It’s sad but to Stephanie’s point, it keeps some things out of the landfill…for a while. I’d imagine that facilitating the appropriate and valuable use of used items is a tough, tough business.

  5. Great post! When I worked at a music school, we got SO MUCH random music-related items, though it was always especially exciting to get broken music instruments, classical music on vinyl records and too many boxes, bags and crates of OLD sheet music (and this was after we were as clear as possible about things we absolutely would not accept). Since my current org doesn’t really accept those kind of donations, I had almost forgotten all about it.

    1. I’m visualizing you trying to play a bent trumpet to the tune of page 14 (b/c that’s the only page that was donated) of the Phantom of the Opera ballad.

  6. Yes, yes, yes! I’m so glad we are finally starting to talk about this. Kudos to you, Nathan, for writing this. We spend too much time and money disposing of items that are soiled, torn, and unusable – and those are resources that are being *taken away* from the true work – helping women and children escape abuse and change their lives.

    1. Emma – do you think a sign at the nonprofits door saying “Our clients don’t want your torn, stained stuff” (maybe not that harsh) would help or hurt?

      1. Probably hurt. Not that I haven’t been tempted. 🙂 We say no often, rarely accept used clothing, and have a very specific, targeted in-kind needs list built by asking women at the shelter what they need. Anything that doesn’t fit the description, we try and redirect the donor to a different charity. Most donors seem to leave happy. But we still get what we call “dump and runs”. Garbage bags, boxes, large appliances turn up mysteriously in the night…

  7. Great post Nate. It ultimately is up to us as nonprofits to shed the label of “beggars”, as for too long we have positioned ourselves that way. As long as that is the case, well-intentioned people will continue to think they are doing us a favor by donating things we don’t need.

    That said, the impatient jerk in me still wants to scream at these folks sometimes. I work for a sports nonprofit and people are always trying to give us crappy used sports equipment, or even worse… their kids’ used trophies. Like, what the heck are we gonna do with your kid’s tee-ball trophy engraved “Timmy Smith, Springfield Bashers, League Champs 2001.”?! You know what would be better, Mrs. Smith? 10 bucks. Thanks.

    1. Dear Impatient Jerk – What? The kids you serve want their OWN name on their trophy?!?!? Ungrateful little Y*(@%*s.

      Never yours,

      Timmy’s Mom

      I’m laughing out loud Nick. Yes, we need to shed the label of ‘beggars’ but I might write-off Mrs. Smith for a while!

    2. I’m guessing the thinking behind this sort of thing is more, ‘Well this hockey stick may be very beat up, but if they don’t have hockey sticks at all, then this is salvageable and better than nothing!’ – which is still in the spirit of giving.
      I must say the issue trophy donations seems odd as well. The engraved plates can be removed and replaced, and therefore the trophy can be reused. Of course if you don’t need/use trophies at all then I guess it’s better your organization make that clear.

  8. I was always told to accept what was offered at my previous job where we often handled donations of furniture for families moving out of shelters into transitional housing. If it meant we put it on our truck and then took it directly to the dump, so be it, because that donor might think of us later and do something better. I listened to my boss all the time UNTIL that one day…

    A “donor” was offering us a couch. We needed a couch. When I got there, both arms were torn and it smelled strongly of cat. I commented on the condition and was asked, “Well, it’s good enough for the homeless, isn’t it?” At that point, I said thanks and walked out without the couch. We did not work with that individual again.

    At my current position, I make sure that every donation is quality and I tell our coworkers regularly to not accept anything that is not usable by our own standards. We get the “dump and runs” all the time as well but make sure that donors know that our clients are human and worthy of dignity.

    Thank you, Nathan, for the honesty in your post.

    1. Thanks Jan – you do bring up a good point. We often ‘put up with’ dump and run donations from those that do other big things for the organization (or could) so we don’t risk the relationship. It’s a careful balance I think. I talk a big game here but we’ll see if I do better at saying no next week!

  9. Great post Nathan. My organization, Cancer Services of Northeast Indiana, does a fair job communicating what we DO need, but we are still faced with “garbage donations”- think wheelchairs that don’t actually roll… that was the best one. I think it takes awareness on both ends- donor and recipient- to ensure that the donation is actually something that will be put to good use. Thanks for bringing to light a very important topic!

  10. Great stuff! I agree with Matt – sometimes the thrift stores get stuff they have to toss! That was certainly the case when I worked at the local Rescue Mission and ran the thrift store. Some people just don’t THINK about what they’re doing. Others are just focused on the tax receipt, so they can squeeze every last bit of value out of their stuff. Either way, you’ve highlighted a very important issue here. When nonprofit staff can take the initiative to educate their donors and supporters about what’s needed most, the result is much better and less trashy.

    Sandy Rees

  11. I wholeheartedly agree with this post! This Thanksgiving a church group donated 5 Thanksgiving meals for our needy families. The “meals” all contained expired canned goods, rotten produce and stale bread. No turkey. So our program staff had to spend the day before Thanksgiving hustling to get donations from local grocery stores. And don’t get me started on how many people want to donate old treadmills. One excuse we give to would-be dumpers is to say that because of the bedbug epidemic, we can’t accept used furniture or toys.

  12. Just got twittered for this link. Great article Nate. The non-profits I am aware do not throw away anything. They have bundlers that come by, pick up unwanted or too old items, and send to third world countries.

    The bigger problem is that donors will not donate more valuable items to lower end charities because they know their donations will have to be sold at a steep discount. Most charities do not have the marketing channel to sell valuable items near wholesale at a minimum. Buyers get a great deal, but the charity goes wanting. Donors just threw their donations away, not what they intended.

    Helping Treasures (non-profit based in North Carolina) is developing a mechanism whereby charities can monetize donations. Will appreciate any feedback and support. Just trying to make a difference supporting charities that do.

  13. Good article. Of course, those of us reading it are probably not the ones who most need to. It would be great if newspapers/other publications would periodically help educate well-meaning donors about how their GIKs may really be a PITA for the recipient charity…When I worked in an animal welfare agency, donors were perhaps even more unfocused in thinking that the animal care staff could use their discards. Maybe we need to start issuing tax receipts/ack letters that describe the donated items in detail: “Thank you for your donation of 12 pairs of soiled, holey men’s underwear intended as bedding for orphan puppies…”

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