Many of us try our best to keep things out of landfills and find new homes for those items that may still be useful to others. However, please consider the following three points when making donations:
Only donate things the organization has said it can use
My local nonprofit thrift store has a handout with an extensive list of what it accepts and what it will not accept. Small appliances are okay, but not coffee pots. Lamps are okay, if they don’t take halogen bulbs. The store also says this: “All items must be clean and in good working condition. We have no facilities to clean clothing.”
Organizations that accept books often provide guidance about the condition of the books they accept. For example, Housing Works says it won’t accept books with “markings, heavy wear, water damage, missing pages or covers, mildew, or strong odors.”
Many other organizations that depend on donations are equally explicit on their websites — and if you’re not certain about what the group takes, you can always call or send an email to inquire. If you donated to an organization in the past, but not recently, I’d recommend doing a quick check of its current policies about donations, because things change.
Donating something that cannot be used just causes extra work for the organization getting the donation. Furthermore, such items might wind up in the dumpster, causing the group to incur an extra expenditure if it gets too many unacceptable donations and an additional pickup is required — and defeating the whole purpose of donating.
You also don’t want to drive to a donation place only to have your donations turned away because they aren’t accepted, as happened to me when I forgot to check the website for my local Goodwill and found it didn’t accept the skis I had. (Fortunately, another nearby charity was glad to take them.)
If you cannot find a place to donate something that you think might still have value to others, you can always try giving it away on freecycle or the free section of craigslist. If it’s permitted where you live, you can also leave things at the curb.
Disaster relief groups usually need money, not stuff
Jessica Alexander was in the Philippines after the 2004 tsunami, and saw what happened when unwanted clothes got shipped there:
Heaps of them were left lying on the side of the road. Cattle began picking at them and getting sick. Civil servants had to divert their limited time to eliminating the unwanted clothes. Sri Lankans and Indonesians found it degrading to be shipped people’s hand-me-downs.
… Someone has to unload those donations, someone needs to sort through them for customs, someone needs to truck them to affected areas which are hard to reach anyway and where there’s a limited supply of fuel. When old shoes and clothes are sent from the U.S., they just waste people’s time and slow down getting lifesaving medicines and food to affected people.
Alexander encourages all good-hearted people to give money — “not teddy bears, not old shoes” — to agencies that know what’s needed and how to get it to the people in need. If such an agency asks for specific items, that’s the only time you should look at donating stuff.
Protect your items when dropping off donations
I recently dropped off some books for an annual book sale in my city. The church that holds the sale has waterproof plastic bins sitting outside to accept donations. But I saw cardboard boxes filled with books sitting out next to those bins — and some of those boxes had no lids. That’s a problem, because we often get heavy fog and mist overnight, and the books sitting out with no covering are likely to get damaged.
Unless an organization specifically permits it (and has donation receptacles in place), you won’t want to donate after hours. Perfectly fine donations can get ruined not just by the weather, but also by raccoons and other wildlife.
Fragile items should obviously be wrapped to protect them, so you don’t wind up with broken glassware or china. Also, be very careful when donating anything sharp — knives, sewing needles, etc. — to ensure no one gets hurt.