Sleigh bells ring, the air is crisp, and the urges both to help fellow humans and to rack up a tax deduction by year's end overwhelm. In the run-up to New Year's Eve, year-end gifts of goods ("in-kind" donations) flood social service nonprofits. To support rather than burden the organization, 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.
The end of the year serves as a reminder to give, but it might not be the best time to donate. At busy times, gifts may not be sorted right away. Unopened bags could be stored in a backroom for weeks. Labeling 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 Center, an emergency food pantry in Gaithersburg, Maryland, that supplies fresh and shelf-stable food to 60,000 participants annually. "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 nonprofits 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.
Damaged items "don't work for our guests, so they get thrown out," says Scott Schenkelberg, president and chief executive of Miriam's Kitchen, a nonprofit 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 nonprofits 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 in Silver Spring, Maryland. His organization 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 nonprofits never want damaged goods, poor-quality items are particularly problematic during the holidays, according to Sheryl Brissett Chapman, executive director of the National Center for Children and Families in Bethesda, Maryland. 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," she says. "We're trying to restore dignity. We can't hand out items that are clearly discards or leftovers. Those reinforce that the recipients are second-class and should have low standards and expectations."
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 (Amazon founder and chief executive Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post).
"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."
Once a donor determines a gift is timely, in good condition and suitable for the targeted nonprofit, donors should know that "practicality" means more than just "usable." Nonprofits 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 neighbor. "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.
"What I'd really love is for people to become more informed," Whittaker says. "By educating our donors and the supermarkets who support us, we reduce waste. We've worked hard to make sure donors of all sorts think about what they give."
"It used to be that people pretty much guessed at what was a good donation, if they didn't feel like calling," Schenkelberg says. "We need to keep changing that culture."
These nonprofits all believe "beggars," in fact, should be choosers. This holiday season, though, they're begging donors to do more choosing.
This article was written by Amy Freeman, a reporter for The Washington Post.