How can I ensure that the clothing I donate to charity really helps the needy?

Advice on how to make the world better.
Aug. 25 2010 7:07 AM

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 ask.my.goodness@gmail.com.

Couple trying on used clothes.
Do your charitable clothing donations help those in need?

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

Dear Alan,
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.

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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."

An alternative to giving the shirt off your back directly to someone who needs a shirt is to give to a store where the proceeds support a cause you have a particular interest in, such as CancerCare or Habitat for Humanity.

Here's a surprising story about a heroine for all of us thrifters. When on vacation, Dame Helen Mirren (who almost always looked fatigued and rumpled as Detective Chief Inspector Jane Tennison on Prime Suspect) often buys her holiday clothes from charity shops. She picks up outfits from thrift stores when she reaches her destination.

The Academy Award-winning actress told the Toronto Sun, "I love a good charity shop, especially when I'm traveling. When I'm going to cold places, I take nothing—just underwear. On my way from the airport I ask the driver to take me to a good charity shop, and I buy boots, socks, trousers, sweaters, hats and scarves—usually for 30 pounds."

The actress doesn't keep those boots and scarves. "On the way back to the airport, I have it all in a big bag and drop it off at another charity shop."

—Constance

Do you have a real-life do-gooding dilemma? Please send it to ask.my.goodness@gmail.com.

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Constance Casey's "Doing Good" beat for the Newhouse News Service focused on charities, the politics of nonprofits, and finding good solutions to bad problems. She has written on gardening and revolting creatures for Slate.

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