THE BLOG
07/29/2013 05:11 pm ET | Updated Sep 28, 2013

Please Keep Your Bellbottoms: What Not to Give

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Please Do Keep Giving Your Stuff...

The school bus is minutes away, and my child turns to me in a mild panic. "The canned food drive, Mom! I need to bring some stuff!" I dash to the pantry, supermarket bag in hand, tossing in cans -- beans, a tin of tuna, wait, what is this one, mustard sardines? why not -- boxes of noodles, a dusty plastic bag with a soup mix in it. "Thanks Mom!" Grabbing the bag, the child dashes to the bus and we both move on with our days.

Or how about this one: A well-known veterans' group has called you, and is sending a truck to your neighborhood next Thursday -- can you spare some clothing? Of course you can. You go through your closet, find some stuff you never wear, start a little folded pile on the floor.

You hesitate at the lovely cotton sweater with that smallish oil stain, and at the warm woolen jacket with the broken zipper. What about that old pantsuit with the Susan Dey power shoulders? It's dated, but in perfect condition.

Does the organization on the other end wash these? Will someone fix that zipper? Isn't a warm coat with a broken zipper than no coat at all?

Shrugging, you figure it's safer to give the stuff, let the group decide. You put it in the bag and bring it out to your curb.

...But Don't Do It Willy-Nilly.

What happens to your items? Until I started working in direct-service organizations, I didn't know. Honestly, I hadn't even really thought about it. And given the tremendous response to my last post, on how to help a panhandler, I thought maybe this is worth discussing, too.

First, we call your donated "stuff" an "in-kind" donation. In-kind donations are vital to Bethesda Cares, and to all the nonprofits I know. We are grateful for your gifts, we value them, need and use them! We appreciate your collecting them for us and getting them to us. And we don't take for granted the generosity of sharing what is yours.

(Waiting for that other shoe to drop, Reader? Good call! I'm holding it high up over my head, in my left hand, and I'm about to let go.)

Two problems with the scenarios above are that a) nonprofits generally don't have the manpower to clean or mend; b) dignity matters to our clients, too. They don't want to wear your bellbottoms, either.

The Nitty-Gritty Following the Willy-Nilly

To illustrate the manpower issue, let's follow your bag of clothing to a fictional but typical large-scale clothing center. While you were at work, your bag went into the back of a truck, along with your neighbor's old tennis racket and a box of assorted baby toys, lightly-gummed stuffed animals and an unmatched child's sandal that somehow slipped in. Once brimming, the truck pulls up to the nonprofit's warehouse, and volunteers (blessings on you, volunteers, you are our lifeblood!) unload it. They toss the bags, boxes and miscellany onto a giant mountain of the same.

Other volunteers -- teens, retirees, mentally disabled -- continually grab bags from the ever-shifting mountain, rip them open, sorting through what you've given. Broken zipper? Toss. No one has time to fix it, even if anyone knew how. Stained? Nope, no washing machine, and offering dirty clothes to anyone humiliates both the giver and the recipient. Trash. Unearth a beautiful cashmere scarf in the heat of the summer? That gets stuffed on a shelf to await the right season, but will probably get buried under other items before then.

Next, the volunteers put acceptable clothing into enormous bins, labeled "girls, summer" "baby stuff" or "t-shirts, men." Others dig through the bins, plucking seasonal items to put on hangers, to bring into the client "showroom," where recipients will finally make their selections.

So when you are donating in-kind -- and please do keep giving! -- do some triage. Keep out the broken, the dirty, the "might be good enough." Support the organization by saving us the time and expense of disposing of it ourselves; and the recipient, by giving good stuff.

Dignity Matters

I don't want to give short shrift to the matter of dignity among those in need; I think it's an important topic, and I will reserve it for a future post. I will say, however, that in my experience, pride and dignity can shine at moments when I least expect it.

I'll close with a favorite Bethesda Cares anecdote: Some months ago, "Stacy" was about to move into a home. At the time, she was sleeping at a bus stop. "I don't know, John," she said to our Outreach Specialist. "I don't like the closets." As John later explained to me, "For us, in order to establish trusting relationships with our clients -- even with those experiencing severe mental illness -- we have to realize that every person alive has preferences worthy of respect. Therein, human dignity lies."

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