Sorting it all out

You've cleaned out those overstuffed closets. Now what? Before you donate to a local charity, ask if they really need what you have.

It's January, and the new clothes and toys your family got at Christmas aren't going to fit into those overstuffed closets. Time to start seriously culling. But before you make a donation to a local charity, stop and ask yourself: "Will my trash really be their treasure?"

The best donations, say those in the field, make both the giver and receiver happy. But how do you know what the charity's needs and goals are? It helps to "check the local listings," since they can vary from one region to another. And it's important to understand that the charitable landscape is more complicated than it used to be.

It's also much more costly.

The Goodwill operation in Boston, for example, spends $300,000 annually disposing of items that don't meet its needs. And the California arm of the organization spends a whopping $7 million a year in dumping costs.

That's why it's good to know what to donate and what to put out for the trash. It's also helpful to understand what happens to your castoffs after you've dropped them off.

Each charity - and each store - has slightly different needs, of course, but there are certain items that tend to be popular across the board.

Clothing donations drive thrift-store operations, according to both Goodwill and the Salvation Army, two of the largest and most visible of the charities that accept used household goods and resell them.

"Probably 70 percent of our income comes through our clothing sales," says Maj. Leo Lloyd, administrator of the Salvation Army's Saugus, Mass., Adult Rehabilitation Center. "I'd rather have more clothes to sell than even furniture."

All types of clothing are welcome - modern styles to vintage - so long as pieces are neat and usable. Most people wash or dry-clean clothes before donating them, which the charities prefer. Major Lloyd says the Salvation Army does not wash things before putting them on display.

Once clothes are on the racks, they usually remain there for 30 days at full price. A man's sweater, for example, might sell for $2 to $8.

At the end of a month, clothes may be marked down for clearance, or, if there is too much merchandise coming in, taken off the floor completely. At the Disabled American Veterans Thrift Store in Meriden, Conn., for example, many items are scooped up during monthly bag sales, in which patrons can fill one bag for $5, a second for $4, and each bag thereafter for $3.

Clothes that don't sell after 30 days - about 50 percent of the total - are sold to textile salvagers for their rag value or shipped overseas. Donations that are torn or stained when they come in go directly to the salvagers.

One exception is torn jeans, since the tattered look is considered fashionable by young people, and the jeans can always be turned into shorts. A quality coat with a ripped pocket lining would also be acceptable, since it still has good resale potential.

"What we tell people is that before they give to Goodwill, they should think about whether or not they would give the item to a relative or friend," says Christine Bragale, a spokeswoman for Goodwill Industries International. "If the answer is no, they should probably put the item in the trash rather than give it to us, because every dollar we spend in disposing of an item that we can't sell in our thrift stores is a dollar we can't spend in our employment and training programs."

In some cases, such as when fire or other disasters strike, donated clothing may be distributed directly to needy families or individuals, but that's usually the exception.

"People often have the impression that Goodwill collects and gives away clothing that people donate, but that doesn't square with our mission," says Kathleen Melley, a spokeswoman for Goodwill's Boston operation.

Through its Clothing Collaborative, participants in Goodwill's job-training program have an opportunity to select an entire outfit at no cost, and then to add to their professional wardrobe, using $25 vouchers in Goodwill stores every three months thereafter.

The Salvation Army also issues vouchers that indigent people can use to purchase clothing in its thrift stores.

But while clothing is the preferred donation - Goodwill received 1 billion pounds of it last year in North America - charities also welcome other items, as long as they're in good shape.

Some people, harking back to an earlier time, still believe that the Salvation Army and Goodwill are in the repair business. They aren't.

Don't expect repair service

"Some of it is contingent on the help we have at our rehabilitation centers," says Lindsay Evans, a spokeswoman for the Salvation Army's regional headquarters. "Sometimes we have people who have skills in upholstery repair or small-appliance repair, but these days a lot of appliances are almost designed to be tossed, so they don't have the capacity to be repaired as some older things did."

Furniture, like clothing, should be in good condition and unsoiled. Electrical and battery-operated items should work well and have no missing or broken parts.

Items that have been recalled or banned by the US Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) cannot be resold by thrift stores. They must be disposed of, at the charity's expense, even if they still work. Goods that fail to meet current safety standards must also be trashed.

The CPSC has more information on safety recalls at its website, www.cpsc.gov.

In some areas, Goodwill accepts old computers, and as part of its training program, has people prepared to rebuild them. It's important, however, to keep the operating system intact and include all the accessories - keyboard, mouse, packaged software, modem, etc.

Mattresses, however, aren't accepted by many thrift shops, because of their bulk and the fact that they must, by law, be sanitized before being sold.

A sofa, on the other hand, may - or may not - be welcome. But even if it is, often the giver must personally deliver it to a thrift shop that can use it.

Other items you may want to give

Mismatched china or plates are often prized donations, because they can be perfect for individuals or small families.

A table lamp that may be chipped but has the look of an antique would also be well-received.

Some collectibles are being sold to enthusiasts on the other side of the country from where they were donated, thanks to the Internet. About 175 Goodwill agencies around the United States auction off antiques and collectibles, eBay-style, at www. shopgood will.com

The site, which has about 3,000 items posted, is much less expensive for Goodwill to operate than a brick-and-mortar thrift shop, since there is little overhead and no leasing expenses. The site has earned more than $4 million for participating Goodwill agencies during its first three years.

Among the best-selling items online and in stores are musical instruments. Toys are also popular. Toys must be in good condition and have all their parts. Puzzles must be in sealed boxes, since it's assumed pieces will be missing from any already opened box.

The Internal Revenue Service allows a tax deduction for each item donated to a nonprofit charity. Donors are given a receipt listing their donations, and the giver assumes responsibility for determining an item's value.

Goodwill suggests basing an item's value on what it would typically sell for in a thrift shop. A floor lamp in excellent condition, for example, might sell for between $5 and $30.

As "gently used" merchandise has become accepted and even fashionable, more nonprofits are getting into the thrift-shop business. In Sacramento, Calif., for example, potential givers can choose between more than Goodwill and the Salvation Army. They can also donate to the city's Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, which operates its own thrift store.

According to Dave Barringer, a Goodwill Industries executive, "whoever gets there first gets the donation. It's all about convenience."

This is not simply a matter of who will send a truck around to pick up items, but which groups have the best-located collection points and stores or services. Goodwill, for example, has many stores where drivers stay in their cars and attendants do the lifting.

Many charities have set up supervised drop-off sites (usually parked trailers) in suburban areas. These are convenient, and they also cut down on the types of donations that can't be sold.

Mr. Barringer says that even though more groups are soliciting donated goods, Goodwill has doubled its collections over the past 10 years.

"I like to think," he says, "that people think that Goodwill and other reputable charities are so good at this that we can take just about anything and make it work - resell and reuse and find a user of this product later on."

Doing good with your discards

To make an informed choice when donating items to charities or organizations, it may be helpful to ask the following questions:

• Will your donation be used to support a cause you believe in?

• What percentage of the revenues generated by your donation will directly support the mission of the organization?

• Does the charity actually operate the thrift store in which your donation will be sold?

• Is the store run by a for-profit operation?

• If the store is run by a for-profit, how will your donation help people in need?

What you should do:

• Give to charities you know and trust. Note that fraudulent charities often modify the names of established groups, so be sure to read carefully the name of the charity before choosing a recipient for your household goods.

• Avoid donating to organizations that can't immediately provide you with information about their mission, history, and the causes they are asking you to support.

• Find out how your donations will be used and how much money the organization intends to raise.

• Realize that if your donated items are not needed at a particular moment by an organization, they may still fulfill your charitable purpose by ending up overseas in the hands of needy people or perhaps with those left homeless by fires or major storms.

Source: Goodwill Industries International Inc.

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