Donor beware: Know where your gifts go
Clothing donation bins used to be the sole territory of the Salvation Army and Goodwill, nonprofit agencies that work in the local community. These days, donors face a dizzying choice, as more and more entities are getting into the collection-bin business.
And that includes for-profit businesses that sell your donated items in the global marketplace. Depending on which bin you use, that warm coat you donate is likely to end up being sold in a Third World country.
Herb Rader, the corps commanding officer for the Salvation Army in Manchester, doesn't mince words about what he sees out there.
"It's a giant scam," he said.
"All types of companies put out the clothing boxes, and they'll give some charity pennies on the dollar to put their name on it.
"I don't know why it's not regulated," he said.
David Scanlan, deputy secretary of state, said any companies that put up bin boxes in New Hampshire should be registered as a corporation with his office or as a charity with the Charitable Trusts Unit at the Attorney General's Office.
Rader said the competition from for-profit companies makes it more difficult for agencies such as his to carry out their missions. "It means that they're struggling and working hard trying to find other sources of funding," he said. "It clearly makes it very difficult for the Salvation Army."
It's not just for-profit companies getting into the bin business; other charities have found it a good way to raise needed funds.
John Anastasia is director of marketing and public relations for the Epilepsy Foundation Donation Center. The nonprofit foundation collects donated items in big green drop-off bins and sells them to retail Savers stores, which resell them at discount prices, he said.
"It's a very well-run store, and people love the stores because they get genuinely good items, good merchandise at a discount price," he said.
There are Savers locations in Manchester and Nashua. The proceeds from clothing sales support education, research and camp programs for the 140,000 people in New England who have epilepsy, Anastasia said.
If you put your clothing in a big yellow Planet Aid box, it's going to a nonprofit company that sells recycled clothing and uses the proceeds to fund environmental, anti-poverty, educational and AIDS prevention programs around the world.
On its literature and website (planetaid.org), Planet Aid makes it clear that donated clothing is baled and sold in bulk, either to sorting houses that may sell some to domestic thrift stores, or to overseas customers.
Jackson Fernandes, regional partnership manager for New England, said the Planet Aid boxes in 758 locations across New Hampshire also benefit local charities, including Children's Hospital at Dartmouth and local food pantries.
Schools, stores and other locations that host a box can have 2 cents per pound of clothing donated to a local charity of their choice, Fernandes said.
And those pennies can add up, he said; for the third quarter of this year, Planet Aid sent David's House at CHaD a check for $485.78, from nine bins designated for that charity.
There's plenty of used clothing to go around, Fernandes said. But his agency has felt the competition from for-profit companies; he recently lost several locations for his yellow bins after a for-profit company paid the service stations to put its boxes there instead.
Fernandes would like to see New Hampshire pass a law requiring collection bins to disclose where the proceeds of donations will go: "To make it clear to the public exactly who the people are that are actually receiving your donations."
Michelle Smith is communications manager for Goodwill Industries of Northern New England. She said her agency stopped using donation bins years ago because of problems with people dumping trash and non-usable items into them.
"We accept all our donations at our stores, and that helps keep the quality up," she said.
Any donations that are not up to Goodwill standards, Smith said, are sent to a Goodwill outlet in Gorham, Maine, where clothes are priced by the pound. "That's a second chance for the item to be sold."
If it doesn't sell there, she said, clothing is recycled into cloth wipes or baled and sold to recycling companies.
Rader said clothing put into those big red Salvation Army boxes is sorted by quality, and "the best stuff will be resold."
What's not usable, he said, is baled and sold in bulk on the commodities market. "It's called rag, but it's just sold as clothing in Third World countries."
Goodwill is not worried about the increasing number of bins out there, Smith said. "We don't really see the for-profit boxes cutting into our donations because we believe our donors that donate to Goodwill donate to us because they know their donations stay locally and help support programs in New Hampshire, Maine and Vermont."
"That being said," she added, "we also encourage donors to do their research before they donate to different organizations to make sure they are aware where their donations are going."
Terry Knowles, assistant director of charitable trusts, advises donors to check with a charity before donating. "You want to make sure that your donation is going to benefit the individuals that you have in mind when you make those donations, so it's very important to check these things out," she said.
This time of year, Knowles said, "everyone is in a very generous mood, they're making their end-of-the-year donations, so it's a time when we do caution people to be very careful.
"We want everyone to support charity - but make sure you are supporting a charity."
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Shawne Wickham may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.