08/05/2011 10:23 pm ET Updated Oct 05, 2011

Are Charities the Dumping Ground for a Society of Excess?

Property virgins on the HGTV cable television show always coo at large walk-in closets when they stroll through a home for sale. Why? Because we all have to admit we have way too much stuff stockpiling in those post-World War II stucco boxed homes with closets so tight you get claustrophobic just pulling a shirt out.

So we covet closets big enough to put a bed in, or extra rooms where we can amass our junk.

When our closets and rooms are so tight that we have no idea what is inside, we respond like every other compassionate, altruistic American homeowner -- we donate our useless items to a charity. Why not? Giving away our excess to charitable organizations soothes our compassionate souls, while we can also write the donation off on our taxes. And it gives us an excellent excuse to buy more stuff!

It is a win-win-win. Well, most of the time.

Sometimes the excitement of donating, the calculations of tax deductions, and the dreams of shopping cloud our common sense. In the years I have been directing a charity, I am never surprised to see a donated item that should be sent to the dumpster rather than to the people we serve.

Old suits that smell like they've been stored for decades, clothes with tough stains and torn holes, used underwear. An old big-screen television that took four people to cart into the building only to find that it did not work. Books with pages torn out of them, a leopard corset, half-used toiletries. And, yes, sexy, dirty lingerie.

The problem in the charity world is that we cannot say no. Try calling a donor to tell them that their donation was tossed in the dumpster. In a bad economy like this, we can't ruin a relationship with a donor. Every donor counts in this new age.

We just grit our teeth, as we say thank you. Even when it is hard to let go of that coveted tax deduction form since we know we cannot use the donation. But we do.

Donating should always be about dignity. The charity world, from homeless agencies to health clinics, is about instilling a sense of worth in people who are hurting. We would not give a broken television to our neighbor next door, and we should not give used underwear to a hurting homeless person.

A few months ago, a couple came into our center to ask us what we needed. They did not want to donate anything that we had no use for. We told them that if we changed all of our computer screens to environmentally friendly flat-screens, we could save a considerable amount of money each month on our electricity bill. The following week, they replaced every old computer screen in the building.

Another donor asked us what he could buy for the people in our employment program. The next week he brought in boxes of pens (that worked) and brand new organizers.

An alliance of faith groups in our neighborhood asked us what they could do to help people who are homeless. So we gave them a list of furniture and household necessities so the faith groups could furnish new apartments for people who were leaving the streets and moving into their new homes. We call them, Welcome Home Kits.

Rather than being discarded excess, these donations became strategic gifts that changed people's lives.

I still like the idea of big closets and finding any and every excuse to go shopping. But in the world of charity, donations are just as important as writing a check, as long as they are given as cherished gifts, not as an excuse to discard junk.