Organizations that take in-kind donations are often in the awkward position of declining items that actually belong in the trash. Thrift stores and community centers want gently used items that they can feel good about passing along to new owners. And while some donors do their homework to find out what these organizations actually need, many are mainly focused on getting rid of stuff they’d rather not throw away. This means volunteers have to spend a lot of time sorting through donations and nonprofits have to spend money getting rid of large items they can’t use. We hear more about how to donate used goods responsibly from Community Warehouse program manager Joe Glode, Marie Ellsworth, in-kind donations coordinator for Rose Haven and Carrie Hoops, executive director of William Temple House.
This transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer.
Dave Miller: This is Think Out Loud on OPB, I’m Dave Miller. A few weeks ago, we got an email from a woman named Karla Forsythe. She is a volunteer at the Community Warehouse in Tualatin. She sorts donations that come in. That is supposed to mean gently used household goods intended for families who are moving into housing. But she told us that they get an unbelievable amount of what is essentially trash: grungy tupperware, chipped dishware, burned pots, half burned candles, and broken appliances. She noted though that they’re not alone, that other places are having similar problems with wishful or well meaning or just plain lazy donating. So we reached out to three nonprofits that all accept donations of different kinds and for different groups of people. Joe Glode is a Program Director at Community Warehouse. Carrie Hoops is the Executive Director of William Temple House, a social service agency that, among other things, runs a thrift store and food pantry in Portland. And Marie Ellsworth is the In-kind Donations Coordinator for Rose Haven. That’s a day shelter and community center serving women, children, and gender diverse people also in Portland. It’s great to have all three of you on the show.
So Marie Ellsworth first, what do you want people to donate, and what kinds of stuff do you sometimes get instead?
Marie Ellsworth: We look for clean, seasonally, appropriate and gently used clothing, items that are without holes, stains, rips, and freshly laundered. But unfortunately that is not always the case, and we’ll receive items that are worn, torn, we’ll get dirty socks, dirty underwear, things like that.
Miller: Literally dirty underwear, you get the sense that somebody wore it and then just gave it to you?
Ellsworth: Yep. It’s interesting when you’re going through the donation pile.
Miller: Well interesting is one word for it. What goes to your mind if you see that? And knowing that this is intended for people who could really use clean clothing?
Ellsworth: It’s very disappointing. Because a lot of the work we do is to try and restore dignity for our guests, and it’s a bit insulting in a way to receive donations such as that.
Miller: Carrie Hoops, what about you? What do you want to get for the thrift store and the food pantry? And what do you sometimes get instead?
Carrie Hoops: So, what we’re always looking for in terms of the thrift store, we can only sell what is already in wearable, usable, sellable condition. We do not have the resources to clean stains, patch holes, replace missing buttons, or refinish furniture that’s broken, household items that are broken. In the food pantry, we have a really strong partnership with the Oregon Food Bank. So things like staples: beans, rice, mets, milk, we can buy at drastically reduced prices through the food banks. Our particular food bank is a shopping style food bank. So we’re looking for things that will help complete the meal. Things like culturally specific foods, or things that help make meals more whole: condiments, spices, herbs, dressings, tofu, rice wine vinegar, eggplant, olive oil, nuts, things that are more costly, and that we can’t get through the Oregon Food Bank.
Miller: That’s what you want to get. What are some of the stranger things that are totally unusable that people have brought in?
Hoops: I guess at the thrift store, often people think they’re doing us a favor, they’ll give us a chair with an upholstered seat that has a stain on it. We can’t sell that. Our customers are looking for things that are ready to put in their homes. In the food pantry, we’ll get dirty items, we will get socks with holes in them. Folks that are coming through a pantry often are living on the streets. They need clothes that are clean, and they often put them on immediately upon getting them through our food pantry. So the more wearable, cleanly is really important to us.
Miller: Joe Glode, I read a portion of that email that came in from a volunteer who actually works for your organisation, Community Warehouse. But broadly, what are the kinds of things that people give you that they’re not supposed to?
Joe Glode: Well, I’d say we get a lot of the smaller items that are hard to reuse. And like Carla said in her email, it could be old pots and pans that just are beyond reuse, tupperware, a lot of towels and linens and bed sheets that just aren’t reusable anymore, pillows and pillowcases, stuff like that. And a lot of bulky items, smaller items. So we try to focus on the larger items, and we typically tell potential donors that our mission drives our donation guidelines. Imagine that we’re trying to furnish someone’s one or two bedroom home for the first time, and what the essentials are. But oftentimes in the smaller boxes, we get a lot of the peripheral kind of kitschy or smaller things, like candles, and things that just take a lot of sorting time, and then eventually take up a lot of space. And we try to reuse those or try to push them onto other organizations that may use them. And sometimes that’s not an option, they just have to go into our dumpster.
Miller: And at that point, is it up to your organization to essentially pay to throw those out?
Glode: Yeah, absolutely. So for the smaller items, typically if we can’t find a way to reuse them, it goes in our normal dumpster, we pay a monthly fee for that. More problematic for us is the bulky items. So things that Metro would call bulky waste. Some of our more essential items are mattresses and box springs and sofas. And if we get things that can’t be reused, what we call dignity condition, things that we can reuse as is, so when someone moves into a new home for stable housing, is something they want to have in their home. If we get items like that, if they’re left on our curbside after hours, that just leads to maybe a biweekly or monthly run to the dump, to the Metro transfer stations. That takes our staff time, our truck time, and we have to pay the fee to do that.
Miller: Right, every time you go through those gates, you have to pay by weight for whatever you have there. So Carrie Hoops and Marie Ellsworth, is it the same case for you, that when people give you trash or unusable stuff that is essentially the same thing, that it’s up to you to pay, both with human labor and actual dollars, to get rid of it?
Hoops: Absolutely. At William Temple House Thrift Store, we often have to sort through and then dispose of excessive quantities of damaged or unsellable items. And let me just say to the listeners, it offsets the net positive or the benefit that could have come from the donation, because it costs us both in time and human resources, as well as the cost of disposal or recycling. We spend up to $18,000 a year just on our garbage bill and taking things to the dump.
Miller: And the majority of that $18,000, that is throwing out stuff that people have given you?
Hoops: Correct. Things that are damaged and we just can’t resell them.
Miller: There are so many ways to think about that. One is, that $18,000, it seems like the majority that should have been paid by the people who were giving you stuff. But also, what else could you have done with that money?
Hoops: Exactly. I mean, for us we would have been able to do more direct services. Our mental health counseling program, our food pantry. We could have purchased more food. We could have done all sorts of other things with those resources.
Miller: Marie Ellsworth, you were saying that at Rose Haven, you’re dealing with a similar kind of situation.
Ellsworth: Yeah, absolutely. When we sort through our donations, we’re able to give some to other mutual aid groups, but a lot of it either we have to throw away, or we’re trying to pass on to Goodwill, but that also takes volunteer power away from our services to be able to go out and redistribute those clothes.
Miller: One of the lines in the email from Carla Forsyth that that caught our attention was at the end of it. She wrote this: “Marie Kondo is a despised name in the world of donation sorting.” I’m just curious, maybe Carrie Hoops first, do you feel like you’ve seen an uptick in stuff you don’t need once people either started reading her books or watching her show and decided that a lot of junk in their lives didn’t spark joy?
Hoops: You know, actually, during the pandemic, everybody was cleaning out their closets. I mean the issue for us is we have finite space in our thrift store, our loading dock and our back room is limited. And so we’ve had at times unfortunately to stop accepting donations, which frustrates the donors when they pull up to the loading dock. It’s a happy but unfortunate problem for them. But we get all sorts of incredible items at the store. And I would say there’s nothing that comes through that, in this past year, that we haven’t been able to resell. Some of the more strange things that were not useful: I mean, somebody gave us a jar with some dead bees in it. They gave us a used sponge that was tidily inserted into a used ziploc plastic sack. Those aren’t helpful to us.
Miller: I’m just trying to wrap my head around… well, the bees one is so confusing and weird that maybe it’s not worth dwelling on, because who can get into the mind of a person who would do that? Who would give a jar of two dead bees? For what reason? Who can imagine?
But the used sponge in a ziploc, when you see that, do you assume that the person knows it’s trash, and so in a kind of malicious, lazy way just gives it to you? Or is it possible that someone really believes that other people would want to use that?
Hoops: I wonder sometimes if they just think, okay, maybe somebody could use this. We see this a lot with donors. They think, oh, okay, here’s a pair of jeans, it’s got a broken zipper. I’m gonna donate these because I bet somebody can fix these. Or here’s a chair with a small tear in the upholstery. And I bet someone will buy this and re-upholster it. These ideas are mythological thinking because we don’t have the reality on the floor, nor do we have that demand for things that are in disrepair. Exceptions that would be like vintage items or things that could be more imperfect.
Miller: Joe Glode, do you get the sense that there is a kind of cultural component to this as well? That many people, especially in the Portland area, because all three of you work in the Portland area, that they don’t want to see themselves as trash generators, as trash-throwing-outers. And so they would rather tell themselves that the excess stuff in their lives is going to have a second or a third life. Do you see this as somehow connected to Portlandness?
Glode: Absolutely. I think there’s a wishful thinking, I think with the best intentions, and maybe a misunderstanding of the definitions of reuse versus recycling and then versus waste. Organizations like ours, especially Community Warehouse, we focus on reuse, but our mission isn’t to reuse specifically. Our mission is to provide essential furnishings for families in need of households, in need in the Portland area, to create stable housing. So we do that through a reuse model. So people come to us and we need to reuse their furniture pretty quickly. So we don’t have the storage capacity or staff capacity to do a lot of major repairs.
And we also don’t have the capacity to recycle. And I think one thing our staff sees a lot is a lot of donors want us to look into recycling things that just aren’t recyclable anymore, because recycling is an industry. And on the front line level of non profit work, unfortunately, we’re not the place to lobby for how the recycling industry, both governmental and private level operates. So we can only recycle basically what residential households can recycle. We can go to the Metro station and kind of recycle more stuff, but otherwise hard plastics in smaller ends like that that were used by private recycling companies a couple of years ago are no longer recyclable. So now it just actually becomes waste. For us, it’s kind of a cultural understanding of those three things. And I think the acceptance, that’s unfortunately some things are garbage and they have to be that way. And then, at the city, county and state, and federal level, that’s kind of a bigger conversation of how we kind of approach that topic about what recycling looks like in the future.
Miller: All of your websites do tell potential donators: this is what we’re looking for. You all, for example, use the, the term “gently used.” But is there a fear that if you’re too stern about telling people what not to give, that, you’ll scare them away from giving anything? Marie Ellsworth, is that something you worry about?
Ellsworth: Yeah. It’s also for many of our donors, it’s the first point of contact they have with the agency and the work that we’re doing, and we don’t want to alienate the community as well.
Miller: In other words, you want to be welcoming so that they can take part in the community and the non profit and maybe do more work, maybe volunteer or stay within the helping world.
Miller: Carrie Hoops, how do you navigate that? You’re trying to get what you want, but also welcoming people to actually give.
Hoops: Yeah. Our donated goods are literally the lifeblood of our thrift store and food pantry, and we appreciate our donors immensely. I guess what I try to do with our donors, let’s take the food pantry, for example, is really to educate them about what’s best to donate.
Cash is the best to donate in terms of our food pantry, and this is why: we can leverage, through our relationship with the Oregon Food Bank, a lot more food for people. If somebody were to give us $20, for example, I can buy peanut butter through the Oregon Food Bank, I’d be able to buy 15 jars of peanut butter, versus what a donor might be able to buy 10 jars with that $20 from Safeway, or vegetable oil. I can just leverage the cash and buy more food.
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