How to Donate and Achieve the Most Good

For the past three years I've worked for a small agency that runs a food pantry, a soup kitchen, and also helps out with financial emergencies. When clients have had to vacate a home suddenly (from eviction, flood, fire etc;) we also try to help out with household items such as bed linens, blankets, dining ware, kitchen ware, bathroom materials, curtains. We also run a children's clothing closet that distributes clothes for free. To maintain these services we mostly rely on donations. For a long time I have had to smile and play along in the illusion that they are saving the world by donating their 2,000 piece Tetley Tea Porcelain Figurine set.
I have to say this somehow or I will die of a blocked artery at 35:

 We are not a rest stop on the way to the dump!
 So, as a public service, I'm going to walk my Dear Reader(s) through the When, Where, What, How, and Why of donating.

When:  Year round.
Towards Thanksgiving, the Jewish Holidays and Christmas there are some days when I never get to sit down and I have a line of cars dropping off food. This is fantastic, this is beautiful and a true miracle. I just wish it would happen every month. This past month, for example, was a very stressful one in the food pantry. We had literally no soups, or peanut butter and jelly, among other things.  Summer tends to be thought of as a time of plenty with advertisements all over the place showing kids munching watermelon and dads grilling burgers over the barbecue. The reality is the summer is one of the worst times for hungry families. A lot of children that qualify for free school meals no longer have that resource. Utility companies that delayed shutting off electricity due to unpaid accounts now do so because there's no danger of the household freezing to death. But that does mean all the food in the fridge and freezer is now gone. So there's an increase in demand during the summer, but the supply does not rise to meet it. Donors might be on vacation, or busy with work, or the person that organises the collection is away, or they're busy with their gardens or playing golf. For whatever reason the association between "cold" and "hungry" is cemented. But the hunger is present even during a heat wave.

Where: Directly to the Source.
I recommend getting in touch with United Way, or going online and looking for local food pantries and other agencies in your area. This may seem sacrilegious, but I do not recommend donating to the United Way, itself, or to a food bank (be careful, if you're trying to donate to a local food pantry to distinguish from a food pantry vs. food bank. A food bank generally is where food pantries purchase bulk food supplies to supplement donations. They charge for these purchases and, in my experience, rarely have what we need in stock). By donating money or in-kind goods (clothes, food, toiletries) directly to the local agency you're getting the maximum effect. Donating to United Way generally works like this: You send a checque to United Way or allocate a certain amount of money to be diverted from your paychecque every pay period.  United Way then decides where and how that money should be spent, and they're going to skim a certain percentage for their own operating costs. If you want to designate where this money is to go, say you specifically want Planned Parenthood to be the recipient, United Way is going to skim off more for the administrative expenses of making that happen (United Way's website shows 13% being diverted to administrative costs). So Planned Parenthood gets less than you intended. Some people are completely satisfied with this arrangement, and I will say that United Way does do a lot of good. If you're busy and just don't have the time to do the research, then by all means. But think on this: A few years ago United Way decided to decrease the amount of funding allocated for our soup kitchen. They said they felt their donors would rather invest in more lasting projects such as jobs and housing than "1 hot meal a day." Perhaps. But what their donors may not have considered was that for many that is their only hot meal a day. As one of our staffers pointed out, "it is hard to feel up to going on a job interview when you're hungry."
By donating directly to your local agency they're able to spend it where they feel the need is greatest, with the maximum percentage going to what you intended it to.
I also recommend, if you have the time, calling the agency you want to donate to and volunteering for a little bit or touring the office, to get a feel for it. You want to get a sense of what they're spending your money on. Is it maintaining a flashy new office? General office upkeep and overhead? You might want to ask for some numbers on what they've accomplished throughout the fiscal year. Or, if you're pressed for time, do some research online, make a phone call, see if there are any articles on the agency in your local paper.

What: Useful stuff; not garbage; not junk. I don't know how many ways I can say this.
This past month we had a double whammy of an apartment building burning down at 8:30AM, and the flood from Tropical Storm/Hurricane Irene. As a result so many people lost most of their belongings: furniture, housewares, clothes, food. To make matters worse, our warehouse that we normally store things in was completely flooded out (because it was in a basement. On a flood plain). We put out a call for help and boy did people respond. Just about every day I was going to get donations of huge bags... of clothes. What I really wanted was food or toiletries, but now I'm writing this with a mountain of adult clothes behind me.
Let me break this down, even further:
Food: Sources of protein are very important. Canned meats, canned raviolis and other pastas, peanut butter and jelly, canned stew; all of this goes incredibly quickly. Canned soups with meat in them (I LOVE when we get the large cans of soups), fruit cocktail is good to get in donations. Check with your local food pantry to see if they have freezer or fridge space to take fresh produce or things like eggs, milk or butter. DO NOT donate anything that is past its best by date, or is opened and half used. We throw those things out while cursing your family name. Things like cranberry sauce, canned pumpkin puree, little 100 calorie cans of corn or fruit cocktail are the most useless things ever. Keep in mind the majority of food pantry users are NOT homeless. They are your neighbours, your coworkers, maybe even a family member. If you wouldn't give it to them, don't give it to us. Get rid of the "well, if you're hungry, you'll eat anything" mentality. It's insulting.
Toiletries: This means toilet paper (which is like gold), shampoo, soap, dental products, deodorant, razors and shaving cream, laundry detergent. The only thing I don't want are those freaking shower caps you get in hotels. Food Stamp recipients cannot make such purchases with food stamps and even brands like suave, or the no-name brand is still pretty expensive when you're on low income. That's right, you can purchase Snickers bars, or Coca-cola and cheese doodles with NO nutritional value, with your food stamps but not toilet paper. It's tough to get a job when your breath is rotting, your hair is greasy and you smell like a barn in winter. Even Taco Bell wants their employees to not repel the customers.
Clothes: This is a tough one. I don't know of many places that take donations of adult clothes. On the other hand, homeless adults are often in need of clean clothes. For us, the issue is man-power and storage. We don't have a large office or space to keep a lot of adult clothes and I don't have a staff member or volunteer to make sure it's being fairly distributed. In some areas you may find programs called Dress For Success. These programs are geared for women who are going on job interviews and have nothing appropriate to wear. But, you know, that takes a certain style of clothing only. The basic rule of thumb is to call ahead and make sure the agency accepts adult clothing. For both children's and adult clothing make sure it's clean, not ripped (the term is "gently used," or "pre-loved") and not completely outdated. If you've got some polyester orange bell bottoms languishing in the attic, go ahead and make some college hipster's day by donating them to Salvation Army. If you're donating both children's and adults clothing please keep them in separate bags.
Toys: Throw them out. I swear to God, do not bother cursing your local agency with some disgusting, used, half-the-pieces-missing toys. If you won't throw them out, we will. I know it seems like a shame, or a waste, your inner environmentalist is cringing at the space in the landfill, or you're nostalgic for when your kids were young. But 1) you should have thought of that before you bought it and 2) your kids are now grown, and their childhood toys have not siphoned off their youthful energy, storing it for when you desperately want to relive their cute days. Throw it out.
Furniture: The problem with furniture is that it's very much in need but no one wants to do the actual work of getting it from point A to point B. When I worked our furniture exchange program I used to say I was working with two demographics that wanted instant results. I was supposed to wave a magic wand and Poof! the furniture would be gone and instantly appear where it was needed. In truth, it works out a little differently. Sometimes when it got to the client in need and they decided they didn't want it! Your best bet is to post online on Craigslist, or freecycle.
Houseware: This is where the useful part really kicks in. Imagine you've been flooded out. Or burned out of your home and you nothing to start a new house with. All your money is going towards new shelter, buying food and clothes for your family and you have a zero (0) balance in your bank account to get anything to cook in or serve it on. Think about what you need and then donate that to the organization you want to help. I don't want knick-knacks, I don't want snow globes or the horrid punch bowl you got as a wedding gift. I don't want table runners or bed skirts or valances. I want silverware, cooking utensils, pots, pans, towels, blankets and sheets, and pillows. I do not want a box of JUST pillow cases, even if you did make them all yourself. They are useless without sheets. I want plates and bowls and mugs and glasses. I want  CURTAINS that SCREEN the windows. Not this silly lacy stuff that goes an inch across. And please, for the love of God, make sure it's clean. You wouldn't believe the gross stuff I've had to throw out.

How: In Boxes, during offices hours, politely. There is a special place in Hell reserve for the douche bags that are so proud of themselves for collecting 30 cans of food and loading them in their Subaru Forrester, 1can in a bag. One memorable donation was a bunch of Sophomores from Vassar College who had spent their dining points on ziplock bags of cheerios and take-away containers of sliced apples and bananas. They had filled an entire car with this stuff and then come after our soup kitchen had been closed for three hours. All I could think was how tragic it was that we wouldn't be able to use any of it. The other tragic part was how proud and pleased they were with themselves that they had wasted collected all this food.
Please don't just drop off your donations during our lunch hour when no one is there to gush over how you're saving the world. When we come back from lunch it's like raccoons have gone through it and then we need to clean up and throw it out.
Please don't expect us to take 20 garbage bags worth of clothing. Usually you're donating to a small agency because you want to help them out. It's not any help at all to completely overwhelm them with material.
Again, please put food donations in boxes. Trying to get thirty bags of cans rolling around on the cart to a location without swearing is very difficult.

Why: Because you're a good person. Because more Americans are in need than ever. Because it's difficult to think of your child's school friend going hungry, or not being able to sleep under a blanket. Because your friend works for such an agency and is showing the signs of cracking under stress. Because your closet is too full, or you realised you don't need all this stuff when some people in your neighbourhood have so little. Not because you want to claim it on your taxes, or because you can't bear this stuff going into a dumpster. The mantra is the same: If you wouldn't give it to your friend, don't give it to charity.


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