How to donate used clothing and items responsibly

A Salvation Army thrift store in Toronto, Ont., Jan. 1, 2017. Rachel Verbin / The Canadian Press Images

It’s spring in much of Canada now, and for lots of people, that means spring cleaning.

And as you clear your home of clutter, you might have some old clothes, toys or furniture that could go to someone in need.

But donating used items is more complicated than you might think. Although the recent conviction of a Salvation Army warehouse director for selling donated toys on the side is a bit of a fluke, if you’re committed to giving, it helps to do your research, say charity-watchers.

READ MORE: Ex-Salvation Army official found guilty of fraud in massive theft of toys

Here are some tips on effectively donating your things:

1. Make sure it’s something a charity actually needs

To start with, items that you donate should be clean and in good repair. Not only that, but you should make sure that the receiving charity actually needs what you’re hoping to give. Sandra Miniucci, vice-president of marketing at Charity Navigator, a U.S.-based charity watchdog, suggests calling the charity first to make sure they want your item.

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Charities might have to pay someone to haul away things they can’t use, she said, which defeats the purpose of giving and actually could end up costing the charity money.

“I think too many times it’s a mismatch,” she said. “The charity is getting your used items but it’s not really something they can use and in the end it means more work for the charity because they have to throw them out or resell them and do the legwork.”

2. Be extra-careful about donating clothing

A lot of donated clothing – particularly items dropped in bins – doesn’t stay in the community at all, said Kate Bahen, managing director of Charity Intelligence, a Canadian organization that researches charities.

Often, clothing is bundled together and sold by weight. It then gets shipped overseas to poorer countries and “dumped” there. According to various news reports, the international trade in used clothing is big business.

Sending clothes overseas might not sound so bad, but Bahen said that dumping clothes into some economies can end up putting local textile industries and clothing manufacturers out of business.

“Where Kenya used to have a thriving clothing industry, that’s completely been gutted by the arrival of bales and bales of used clothing,” she said.

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“Giving to third world countries is disastrous. We think, ‘Wouldn’t they be grateful to have it,’ but it is really putting those countries out of business.”

Bahen recommends looking into specialized local charities that accept clothing. In many Canadian cities, for example, there are smaller charities that accept donations of formal gowns for girls who want to attend high school proms but can’t afford a new dress. Other organizations accept donations of business suits for people to wear to job interviews.

For more general clothing, Goodwill might be a good option, she said, as some locations employ people who have trouble finding work to give them retail job experience, on top of just selling discounted clothes.

But because of its potential effects on the economies of developing countries, she’s hesitant to donate much clothing, other than items specifically sought by charities.

“I was just like you and I used to donate my clothing,” she said. Since she learned about how so much donated clothing gets shipped overseas, “Now I put my clothing in the garbage.”

3. Steer away from clothing donation bins

Unfortunately for the legitimate charities that use donation bins set up in parking lots, there are now many clothing donation bins run by for-profit companies. Often, they are indistinguishable from the real charity’s bin, said Bahen, down to having fake Canada Revenue Agency charity registration numbers.

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A proliferation of for-profit bins actually hurts legitimate charities sometimes. In 2014, Quebec charity Le Support complained that they’re actually getting fewer donations because of all the bins around.

READ MORE: Non-profit organization warns of clothing bin scams

But if you’re less interested in giving to charity and really just want to get rid of old clothes, is it so bad to drop them in a bin? A lot of the clothes dropped in a for-profit bin end up getting sent overseas, said Miniutti, causing the economic problems outlined above.

And if you really want to donate, you shouldn’t just drop things in a bin, she said.

“If you’re truly trying to be charitable, your best bet is to go to the charity directly.”

It’s also worth calling the charity named on a bin to make sure the bin is real and they actually put it there, said Bahen.

4. Consider donating money instead

When it comes to items that have value, Bahen suggests you consider selling them online or at a yard sale, and then just donating the money to the charity of your choice.

“Money is always better than giving stuff,” she said. She worries that people are sometimes using donations as a way to clear out their garages. If this is what you’re doing, you could take your old things to a consignment store and donate the money, she said.


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