Ask Unclutterer: Finding a reputable charity when donating your unwanted goods

Reader Len submitted the following to Ask Unclutterer:

Reading through the recent posting of Freecycle, I saw many notes on the negatives of Freecycle. Also notes on the fact that Goodwill is bad since items do not go to people who need them but rather to employees who then sell them on Ebay. Any truth to the latter? I am alway concerned about the many charities who call about having a truck in our area soon and do we have anything to contribute. Are there any reputable charities out there?

I’m pretty much of the opinion that even if the rumors are true and Goodwill employees take donations and sell them on eBay, it happens because the person taking the stuff really needs the money. It is not as if working for Goodwill is a million dollar a year job. In fact, Goodwill is currently under scrutiny for paying less than a minimum wage to their employees.

I see it as I’m making a donation of items to Goodwill because I didn’t want whatever I’m donating. I wanted my things to go to someone who needed them. So, if it actually happens, if people are taking these items to use or sell on eBay, I simply don’t care. They have a need for the stuff or the cash, I have a need to get rid of my stuff, and the interaction successfully brings the two of us together. Again, IF it happens.

However, I empathize with your desire to give to a charity that will get the things you’re donating into the hands of someone who needs the items the way the charity has promised. As a result, I try my best to research before giving to any group.

When considering donating to any charity, I start by learning about them on Charity Navigator. Not all charities are rated by the site, but an impressive number are. If the charity isn’t rated, check to see if it has an unrated listing (which they likely do) and also checkout the article “Evaluating Charities Not Currently Rated by Charity Navigator.” (The “Tips and Resources” section in the left-hand sidebar of that page is also helpful.) I really appreciate and recommend the Charity Navigator site.

Forbes magazine also does an annual U.S. Charities review that is very informative. The magazine typically updates it each November. Right now, you can find information about The Largest U.S. Charities for 2012. The List of Charities is extremely helpful for doing side-by-side comparisons and the “Filter by category” drop-down menu in the left-hand column is perfect for identifying specific types of charities to match with your goods.

Beware, though, that you can easily clutter up your time trying to find the exact right charity for your specific donation. Sometimes, stuff just needs to get out of your house now. In those cases, stop thinking about the ideal, and donate to the charity that is the most convenient for you and is accepting donations. The next time you make a donation you can aim for an exemplary match. To misquote Voltaire, “Don’t let perfect be the enemy of the good.”

Thank you, Len, for submitting your question for our Ask Unclutterer column. I think it is a very important topic, especially for those of us who are in the process of uncluttering our homes. Please also check out the comments for more advice from our readership.

Do you have a question relating to organizing, cleaning, home and office projects, productivity, or any problems you think the Unclutterer team could help you solve? To submit your questions to Ask Unclutterer, go to our contact page and type your question in the content field. Please list the subject of your e-mail as “Ask Unclutterer.” If you feel comfortable sharing images of the spaces that trouble you, let us know about them. The more information we have about your specific issue, the better.

19 Comments for “Ask Unclutterer: Finding a reputable charity when donating your unwanted goods”

  1. posted by pat on

    If you are really concerned about where your charity dollars go, try giving to people or organizations in person. See how the organization is run and personally give your donation to somebody. The closer you get to the donation process, the more meaningful and satisfying your experience will be. Clicking a “give” button on a website, or texting “donate”, to somewhere is not the same as handing the administrator of a home for the blind a check to repair their furnace.

  2. posted by Jeanette on

    Let’s be clear: Is the issue getting stuff out of your house ASAP and into a charity, any charity? or…giving your stuff to a charity that will, in fact, ensure that your stuff goes into the hands of the truly needy (I wish more churches had the resources to take stuff in and simply give it out to families with no cost. I wish I had a way to do that, I’d make the effort myself to get it to them.)

    To me, this is worth the time and effort to ensure it gets into the hands of folks who can use the items, especially when so many families have literally lost the contents of their home (I live in an area deeply affected by Hurricane Sandy.) Profiting this way is NOT charity.

    Any organization that knowingly does NOT police its staff to ensure that stuff is not resold by them is not one I want to donate to (and one could say: Well, people BUY stuff and then resell it…nothing one can do about that. At least they purchase and that money goes to the charity.).

    Sorry, but I do not have as benign a take when employees of goodwill or the salvation army (or any other charity)are in essence, stealing from the organization they work from for their own benefit–and make no mistake, these folks are paying nothing; they are just appropriating stuff from the piles. They are not supposed to be doing this. I have literally seen them take stuff from the piles of donation in front of people donating. (Talk about chutzpah.)

    You want to ask me if you can have something I’m donating for your personal use before I donate? Fine. Not a problem. But once I hand it over for donation, it’s not yours to take.

    This misuse of donated items is expressly forbidden in many instances but people do what they can get away with.

    If I didn’t care who got what and what they did with it, I’d stick stuff in the trash or on the curb.

    I don’t for a second doubt that they may need money. However, when I donate, I donate to a charity for RESALE to people who want/need those goods at reduced prices.

    I want those items in the hands of people who need them TO USE. If I wanted them to be resold, I’d resell them myself.

    Your article only encourages this ongoing abuse and empowers these thiefs by telling people to not really let it bother them and don’t get “cluttered” when uncluttering. Seriously?

    If you have apparel, household goods in good condition and usable as is, don’t bother with Freecycle. Call up a church, ask about families who need and can use.

    It’s worth the effort to put stuff in the hands of those who could use it. It’s NOT just about uncluttering. It’s about redistributing to get things into the hands of those who have a need.

    One of the reasons I can unclutter is because I firmly believe it is wrong to hold onto things one does not use and that they should be in the hands of those who need them. I have donated tons of such stuff even when I could have easily sold it on craigslist because it wasn’t about making money (and there is nothing wrong with one selling one’s stuff on craigslist. It is jsut that giving away some stuff is about getting it to people with little resources to buy/get such items. )

    Yes, I feel very strongly about this and I make no apologies. Charities are not set up as ways for their employees to run their own businesses.

  3. posted by SAHMama on

    Exactly how do you expect a place like Goodwill to vet every person who might walk through the door as truly being “needy”? And match up the right person with the right donation? The point of Goodwill isn’t to match up needy people with the right donated item. The point is to offer employment to people that wouldn’t otherwise be employable (I agree they should at least be earning minimum wage, even if they are slow at their tasks. They aren’t worth any less as people than anyone else). Goodwill employs people to sort items, stock shelves and hang clothes that wouldn’t otherwise be able to hold down a job. Maybe they have a felony on their record. Maybe they have severe behavioral/personality disorder. Maybe they have a physical disability that impacts their speed, endurance or attention span. If you want to make sure your donations go to someone who needs exactly that item, then the onus is on YOU to do it. Once you let the item go to Goodwill or whatever other charity, it’s a gift to them to do with as they see fit. If they can’t sell it, they trash it.

  4. posted by Cynner on

    If you have things to get rid of, just let them go and don’t try to dictate what should be done with what has essentially become refuse to you.

    A rather significant portion of clothes that are donated are baled and sold to textile recyclers. Hopefully the seller/charity uses those funds to help other or keep their operation going.

  5. posted by Jenny Whitaker on

    I worked in the reception of a NHS health clinic. My very busy manager worked full-time running the East Kent area. She always found the time to scour charity shops for toys and games for the children. She used to put the plastic toys in her dishwasher to give them a good clean. The Dover area of Kent saw a great influx of asylum seekers over a period of years and many of the toys went missing after busy clinics. I asked her one day why she bothered as all these purchases were disappearing. As quick as a flash she said “It doesn’t matter what happens to them as long as somewhere, somehow a child will be enjoying them” I felt really bad!. I suppose it’s different to the adult that is making money out of charity, but somehow, someone will be getting pleasure from the item rather than it sitting in a cupboard or in the roofspace

  6. posted by G. on

    Goodwill takes time to match donations to those who need them?!? I only know of the resale stores that are often staffed by those who would have trouble finding other employment at this time in their life for a variety of reasons. As far as re-selling the donations, if it’s items taken from the donations before they get put out in the shop, well, karma’s a …. it’ll catch up with them. Based on the thrift shops in this area, there’s not much donated that’s worth getting paranoid about what happens to it once it hits the donation bin. If they buy from the shop, and then re-sell, I say more power to them if they have that much ambition.

    Jenny W – why did you feel bad about asking? She gave a viewpoint that maybe hadn’t occurred to you. No harm in that.

  7. posted by christine wahl on

    I know for a fact from the employees own words that they take the good items that come into the store and use them for their own purposes. Believe me, the disabled people are not the ones taking the items and selling them on ebay. It is the people who should know better.

    There is one charity that claimed to help Veterans in my town. I gave to them till I found out they were basically doing the same thing.

    So, I now only donate to one group. That is the Greyhound Angels Adoption agency. They not only help retired dogs, they also help veterans by placing dogs with disabled veterans. Veterans get the shaft by our government so I try to help them as much as possible. It is an excellent organization.

    Hope more will do so to help the Veterans and Dogs. They come around once a month and I make sure they only get good items.

  8. posted by ChrisD on

    This seems very strange from the UK point of view. All the people who work in charity shops are volunteers and are paid, at most, only their travel expenses and lunch. It’s not really a thing that such shops are expected to provide jobs for the ‘unemployable’. Indeed people on benefits are discouraged from doing volunteer jobs.
    Shops do have paid managers, who may not be full time, but may donate an extra day. Thus it is the managers job to ensure there is a good ethos and to keep volunteers up to the standards expected of them. This is not rocket science, it’s basic management.
    Shops can match up items with the exact person who needs them by putting them on sale. This is the entire point of markets. Markets are not all powerful, but this IS the bit they are good at.
    If the aim is to sell items at less than their ‘market’ value to people who need them then that is genuinely difficult (same story with concert tickets). Anybody could walk in and buy cheap stuff and sell it. Charity shops in the UK don’t even try to do this. The intention is to sell the stuff for the best price it will get and then use the profits to help whoever the charity is working for.

  9. posted by Kathryn on

    I’m not so sure that it is common for employees to sell the items on eBay for personal profit. Most of the items given to Goodwill around here are not of that high of a standard. That being said, I know of several charities that do sell the better items on eBay FOR THE CHARITY. This allows them to make even more money from the sales of these items to help more people. So, yes, the employees are selling items on eBay, BUT it is for the store, not themselves.

  10. posted by PamR on

    I used to work in a very poor neighborhood and would see people picking through the public trash cans. I started putting items that I thought would be usable by them (clothes and kitchen items) in the trash cans, figuring someone needy would get them. At times I’ve also left items on the bus, for people to take. This may seem odd to some, but I felt like the items were going directly to a needy person, rather than being resold to them. Now that I’m not working, I often give items to a local church that has a clothes bank for the poor. Sometimes a local institution that works directly with the poor is a good bet for your donations.

  11. posted by Michaela on

    I have made a deal with myself that when I unclutter something, it has to go. I have put enough effort into keeping it, only to decide to let it go – enough is enough. I used to use the local Goodwill in my town and I liked getting a receipt for taxes. One day after we cleaned out our basement of some nice items (stuff we basically inherited and didn’t really want) we went to donate it to Goodwill. The worker that greeted us at the pickup literally pointed to a dumpster and told us that is where we could put our stuff. He claimed they could not “take it” so therefore we should just toss it right now or he would as soon as we drove away. My husband got very upset, and insinuated that he was lazy to which the worker got verbally abusive with him. It was unreal. Since then I have REFUSED to deal with that Goodwill. I use another local charity in my town that has dropboxes for clothes, I donate books to the local library, and I offer other items to family, friends, and neighbors. I also donated to my son’s schools rummage sale. If all else fails I put it on the curb with free sign. I have to just put it out there and hope it gets to where it needs to be, but really its no longer my problem. Sometimes you just have to let go.

  12. posted by WilliamB on

    I use Goodwill because they make it relatively convenient to drop off items. In order of importance to me, I donate items to Goodwill to
    1) get them out of my house;
    2) hopefully keep them out of the trash;
    3) benefit people who could use the benefit.

    If Jeanette wants the *items* she’s donating to reach the hands of the needy, then Goodwill isn’t the place for her. Goodwill’s buisness model is selling the items and using the proceeds to fund their charity work.

    I can’t tell if Jeanette is outraged that someone would profit from the resale (to which I think, they should benefit from their effort and enterprise) or if she thinks Goodwill employees are stealing the donated goods. I have no reason to think employee theft is more prevalant at Goodwill than any other store. Anyone have data to the contrary to offer?

    As a sidenote, my local Goodwills don’t allow employees to shop at the Goodwill they work at.

  13. posted by Debbie Gartner aka The Flooring Girl on

    It’s best to do your homework on the organization you want to donate to and find out how much of your donation actually gets donated.

  14. posted by Jeannette on

    I donate to a charity that resells (to whomever is the customer, not the staff). The ideal is that the shop has items that are accessible to folks who can use (although many shops are purveyors of high-end stuff that is bought by people with lots of money).

    I would prefer, as it is my right, to give to people who need it and not use a goodwill or salvation army, for some items.

    When employees/volunteers or whomever are working in an organization that expressly forbids them from taking donated items rather than putting them out for sale, that’s a violation of the rules. I’m not going to applaud anyone who does that as being enterprising.

    As I said, if I was making an in-person donation and an employee ASKED me if they could have it, I would give it to them.

    by the way, I didn’t say anything about goodwill or salvation army “vetting” whoever shops from their store. My issue is employee theft. And by the way, not everyone who works in these stores is someone who can’t be employed anywhere else. Some of them as it turns out, are very enterprising in that they not only take/steal stuff for their own use, but give to others to resell.

    If a store allows them to buy at a discount for their own use AFTER putting stuff in stores, that’s one thing. But outright theft of inventory is still theft.

    It’s even more unacceptable when you steal from a charity, which is a non-profit that is supposedly using that money to help those in need.

    I have no issue with goodwill. The issue is goodwill employees who take stuff from the donations.

  15. posted by WilliamB on

    “I would prefer, as it is my right, to give to people who need it and not use a goodwill or salvation army, for some items.”

    Oh, absolutely. I hope I didn’t give any impression to the contrary.

    “When employees/volunteers or whomever are working in an organization that expressly forbids them from taking donated items rather than putting them out for sale, that’s a violation of the rules. I’m not going to applaud anyone who does that as being enterprising.”

    I think maybe we’re talking past each other (again?). What I was referring to was not employees taking goods rather than putting them out for sale; that is a violation of Goodwill rules and illegal. What I was describing as enterprising is buying things at Goodwill and reselling them for a higher price.

  16. posted by Nana on

    I work at a non-profit that provides a variety of services to poor / disadvantaged folks…and get calls every week from kind people who want to donate Stuff for them. Sorry, we can’t keep your old Stuff until someone comes in who wants an 8′ couch or size-whatever clothing. We suggest Salvation Army [the only one in this area that still picks up] or Goodwill or ANY charity thrift shop. [for the foreign writer: some charity shops are run by unpaid volunteers, but not the big ‘national’ charities’ stores.]

  17. posted by Rebecca | Seven2Seven8 on

    My struggle right now is finding the balance between keeping only what is useful and beautiful in my life and not treating what I own and then donate as disposable goods. To that end, I’m trying to sell what I can sell, donate to those that can best make use of what I don’t need, and maintain my sanity. I have been stuck with several bags of Goodwill items for weeks now; could I re-purpose or make use of some things? Could I sell some things and recoup some of their cost? How much of my energy is going into this stuff? All of those questions are relevant, and they all tug me in different directions.

  18. posted by Tonya on

    Does anyone know how Goodwill distributes donations among stores in a large city? If I donate to Goodwill A in my neighborhood, will my items go on the floor at that store for sale? Or will they be sent to a distribution center in town and go to a store from there?
    I personally do not care how they do it. But I’m asking because I have several “gifts” that my, borderline hoarder, family have given me. I plan to take them to Goodwill but I don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings if they were to see them for sale. Thanks.

  19. posted by Julie on

    I’d like to mention St Vincent de Paul Society. I’m a volunteer/member, and we have few paid employees in the stores.

    When you donate your goods, we sell them and use the money to fund our charitable support. Local groups can apply for money to be directly distributed at the parish level. My group doesn’t ask for money from the stores but rather relies on our parish for money and food donations.

    Our help extends to a geographical location, but there are no religious requirements. You don’t need to be Catholic, Christian, or even a believer. We will offer to pray with you, but if you want to say no, we still offer help.

    Our help can be range from giving you a gift card to a local grocery store to helping pay utilities.

    Often people who would need something from the stores (furniture, clothes) are given vouchers for such purchases. I have no idea how they are handled.

    The reason I am going into such detail about what we do is that the money made from reselling the goods doesn’t go to the Church itself. It directly benefits the poor, so I hope that no one would refrain from donating thinking that they would be giving money to the Catholic Church. You are not subsidizing our religion but instead truly helping the poor.

    If you have big items or a lot, you can call to arrange a truck pick-up.

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