Earlier this month, a nonprofit in Albuquerque got a donation it didn’t want: a trailer full of junk, literally. Sadly, this is not newsworthy to those of us who work in the sector. We have too much experience receiving donations of goods we cannot use, from totally battered and broken items to those that are irrelevant to our work. To any individual who has dropped off goods at a nonprofit thrift store and actually bothered to looked at the donated items that have been put out by the dumpster, or spoken with someone who works at a food bank, this shouldn’t be news either, although it probably is to the vast majority of Americans.
Sadly, too many people equate nonprofits, not with the good work they do for the communities in which those very same people live and work, but with something just above a dump. What this says about how Americans perceive the sector and those it serves is a sad commentary on the state of humanity in our society.
Why are we one-better-than-a-dump? First, every dump that I have ever taken unwanted and unusable goods to requires a payment: yes, you have to pay them to take your junk. Second, the majority of dumps that I have been to, in three different states, require some travel to get to them. Using a nonprofit as a dump is so much more convenient and economical.
First, nonprofits don’t charge you to drop of your goods. In fact, they actually pay you in the form of a tax deduction. Yes, those people who drop off their junk at nonprofits—the chair that no one wants to sit on, the rotting food, the threadbare towels, the bulky TV that doesn’t work, one nonprofit even reported receipt of hazardous chemicals – still take a tax deduction, valuing the goods not at their current value, which would be zero, but at the value of the goods if they were still usable and desirable. Second, the distance between you and a deserving nonprofit is never very far, so it is convenient for the junk donor. Hence, the donor wins and the nonprofit loses.
Nonprofits have always relied heavily on the kindness of others. We want and need donations—but not just any donations. And it is time we made that clear. When someone gives us something which we cannot use, regardless of her/his best intentions, it actually costs us resources we don’t have to spend on things that aren’t helping to further our missions. We are now faced expending time explaining to the donors why we don’t want their junk donation, and dealing with the indignation (and berating that can come with it) of the put-upon donor who can’t understand why we aren’t extremely grateful for the incredibly generous gifts they are bestowing upon us. If we aren’t lucky at convincing them to take back their gifts, as we rarely are (and, to be honest, too few even bother with this first step), we are the ones who must then pay for the removal of the goods: the cost of hauling the goods away, the dumping fees, the time it takes to do all of this, etc. The only ones who win here are the donors; nonprofits are triple losers: we offended donors, we paid real dollars that we could use on mission delivery to get rid of donations and we lost productive staff time to something other than furthering our mission.
No matter what a donor may think, these junk donations aren’t about helping others; they are all about helping him/herself. If these gifts were really about helping others, donors would have to ask themselves: would I use this item? Cleaning up and out is about two things: does the item still have the quality that I require/an existing shelf-life and will I use this item in the future? If the answer to the first question is, “No, I would be embarrassed to have this item in my home/office/on my body|eating this item,” then that item needs to go in the trash and not to a nonprofit. If the answer to the second question is no, then the next question to be asked is, “Is this of good enough quality that someone else would be pleased to have it?” If the answer is no, that item, too, must go in the trash. If the answer is yes, then consideration can be given to what nonprofit is the best fit for this worthwhile donation. It is our job as the potential recipients of unwanted trash to educate potential donors about this situation. Failure to do so supports these potential donors twisted understanding of our clients.
To be truthful, I care less about the imposition on the nonprofits that gifts of junk create and far more about what gifts of junk say about the donors’ perception and appreciation of our clients. “Beggars can’t be choosers” should not be the mentality of donors.
And, yet, when donors give to nonprofits things they would never use themselves, they are, in essence, saying just that: you should be thankful for whatever you can get, broken, fully worn, rotting, etc. If you have never visited or seen pictures of Manchester Bidwell Corporation, the haven that Bill Strickland insisted on building for the underserved of Pittsburgh, you should. He believed, and rightly so, that if people were going to succeed they needed to feel valued, respected, important, etc. And that doesn’t happen when you come to a space the replicates the lack of resources seen every day in their daily lives; that doesn’t expose the possibilities and reveal potentials but only reinforces the limitations of the every day. Manchester Bidwell in its physical space tells its clients of what can be theirs—not for free, but through education, training, hard work, etc. Junk donations never, ever achieve that; in fact, they don’t even take people into proximate waters. Junk donations don’t speak of human dignity, which is Bill Strickland’s message; they speak of human degradation.
Etymologically speaking, philanthropy is, literally, loving mankind. There is certainly no love of mankind in junk donations.