The Shirt off My Back
How can I ensure that the clothing I donate to charity really helps the needy?
Do you have a real-life do-gooding dilemma? Please send it to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Dear My Goodness,
I have a bunch of old clothes I'd like to get rid of, but I'm wary of just dumping them off in one of those yellow bins by the side of the road. I'm not terribly confident that those clothes will end up in the hands of people who need them. I'd donate them to the Salvation Army, but they resell the clothing. Are there any charities that give clothing directly to those in need?
—Alan in Maryland
It will take a little effort on your part, but, yes, you can bypass charity thrift shops and give the clothes directly to someone who needs them. Call your local social-services department to find a homeless shelter that could use men's clothing, and make an appointment to go by the shelter. There are two reasons why it's better not just to drop the clothes off. First, an unexpected delivery could create a distraction and extra work for the staff. Second, it's good to get a receipt because you may be able to get a tax deduction for the value of your donation. Someone seeking a way to donate women's clothes directly might ask a local church for a contact at a battered-women's shelter.
For donations of professional women's clothing, there's a well-established charity, Dress for Success, that gives clothing directly to people in need. Dress for Success clients get free clothing appropriate for office work or a job interview, plus help in putting an outfit or two together. There are groups that provide a similar service for men looking to impress a prospective employer. Make sure any clothing you send their way fits the bill.
Gifts-in-kind can be a problem for some charities. Actual stuff is harder to sort and store than money is. There's a very tart and telling recent essay in Slate's sister site The Root by a Ghanaian writer about how Africans may feel about receiving old clothes.
For a charity to resell your donated clothes for money may not be as undesirable as you think. The people who run the Salvation Army and Goodwill stores are not taking the proceeds and running off to buy seaside villas in the South of France.
Sales in 2009 at Goodwill's 2,400 stores brought in $2.4 billion, of which 84 percent went into job training and family-support programs. The Salvation Army's 1,375 U.S. stores raised about $540 million in the same year. As the Salvation in its name would imply, the army is Christian and its officers are Bible-carrying. Their official stance in opposition to gay marriage, for example, has drawn some fire. Though their views may offend some, they deserve credit for doing work that others shun.
If you ask foundation executives and charity administrators what the most difficult cause to raise money for is, you'll get this answer: people in prison and ex-convicts. By some estimates, about two-thirds of U.S. prisoners released every year will return to prison within three years. That's an obvious problem, and it's impressive that both the Salvation Army and Goodwill are willing to take this on. The Salvation Army is expanding its work in prisoner rehabilitation with prerelease job-training programs. Goodwill's expertise is in job training and placement, and it provides these to ex-offenders along with safe and stable housing.
As opposed to brick-and-mortar thrift shops, the bin by the side of the road or in the grocery store parking lot is tempting because it's so convenient. There's no person there to insult the condition of your castoffs. But, Alan, you're right to bypass it, because there are two drawbacks. First, if you file an itemized tax return, a receipt from the charity can get you a tax deduction for the fair market value of your noncash donations. Second, the convenience factor makes it less likely that you'll be making a conscious and informed decision about the beneficiary of your generosity.
At most of these stores, you're providing clothing at low cost for people with fixed, low, or no income. A lot of us really like giving to (and buying from) thrift shops. It's a happy kind of recycling, with some emotional punch. A donor might feel, "Everyone remembers this blue dress I've worn to three weddings and two Thanksgivings, and it would be nice for someone else to get pleasure from it."
Constance Casey is a former New York City Department of Parks gardener and writes the monthly "Species" column for Landscape Architecture Magazine.
Photograph of couple shopping by Ryan McVay/Thinkstock.