Donating Your “Declutter” to Charity

by Dale S. Brown   |   June 27, 2012


Many people start simplifying their lives by decluttering their space. That was one of my first steps on the way to financial integrity, as recommended in Your Money or Your Life by Vicki Robin and Joe Dominguez.

But what do you do with the items that you no longer want? My last post, on Giving Away Your "Declutter" to People Who Want It, suggested giving things to friends, family, and community members. Of course, this technique limits you to people whom you already know.

Most people bring their unwanted stuff to a shopping center drop-off, a donation center, or a collection event such as a clothing drive. This is certainly better than keeping it yourself. But how much of your donated stuff is actually reused, and how much ends up in the landfill? I recently showed a lamp with a broken plug to an employee at Goodwill Industries. She rolled her eyes and told me scornfully that staff would throw it in the trash.

Charities are overwhelmed with donations that they cannot use. Staff must sort through these items, which takes away time from serving their clients. People in need often do not want to settle for stained clothing. Their children have eagerly opened holiday gifts, only to find a shabby doll or a toy that doesn’t work. Economically disadvantaged people deserve dignity and respect. Used items are often seen as disrespectful in today’s consumer-driven culture—a perception that is exacerbated when items are truly unusable.

To help you avoid these problems, read the Guide to Donated Non-Cash Items written by Charity Navigator, the largest and most-used evaluator of charities in the United States.

Sometimes good deeds go astray. For example, old clothing exported from the United States is reportedly driving out the native clothing and weaving industries in some African countries. So, I bring my clothing to the Rhonda Gilliam Clothing Bank in a nearby church, which assured me that they could use clothing that other charities reject. The Center for a New American Dream suggests a clothing swap and provides a video and “how-to” tips in their new Guide to Sharing.

Our current economic system makes the donation process difficult. Most items we own are made using artificially cheap labor, such as sweatshop workers overseas. The skilled labor need to repair something (or the time and energy this takes from people’s lives) is costly. So very few nonprofits will repair items, unless they have access to a group such as The Fixer’s Collective in Brooklyn, or the “repair cafes” of Amsterdam.

To assure that your item will actually be used, call the charity. Ask if they want your contribution. Look for local guidance such as DonateSmartDC, which was put together by a coalition of nonprofits in the Washington, D.C. metropolitan area.

It can be challenging to find a nonprofit that will use your donation. But it’s satisfying to learn when you’ve made a good match. For example, I gave ribbons and type balls from an IBM Selectric Typewriter to the D.C. Choral Society. A staff member said that they could not get these items anywhere. A homeless shelter needed backpacks. I brought my backpacks to them—and saw their program in action. Students at the Duke Ellington School for the Arts are now using my photography tripod.  

Charity Navigator and other nonprofits suggest that you sell your goods and give them the money so they can get what they need and lower staff work burden. Selling your items is, of course, an option for recirculating your goods. Venues include yard sales, craigslist, eBay, Etsy, and more. But you might also need the money yourself.

I have donated most of my stuff and sell only high-value items. For example, my old radio could probably be sold, but my apartment lacks the grounds for a yard sale, and having strangers visit me is risky. Non-local venues such as eBay require the labor of packaging and mailing the item. Consignment shops require the time and ability to track and collect the money.

On the other hand, many people find that selling their items, rather than donating them, is a good way to get them in the hands of folks who need them. (If you are one of them, please leave your tips in the comment section.)

Freecycling items is another good option. You announce your item or items on an Internet bulletin board and people come and get it. It’s been my favorite way to give away my stuff. And it’s the topic of my next blog, “Freecycling:  Don’t Throw Things Away. Give them Away.”

Other blogs from Dale S. Brown:

Giving Away Your “Declutter” to People Who Want It

Minimizing Monthly Expenditures: A Key to Financial Freedom

Making the Potluck a Success in Today’s World

My Story of Frugality: Breaking My Economic Dependence on My Job

Spending Strategies: How Frugality Helped Me Cut Costs and Gain Freedom from "Work"

Are You Being Frugal, or Just Plain Cheap?

Dale S. Brown works on a portfolio of projects that empower people both in personal growth and political power. She lives in Washington, D.C. and is a published author of five books in addition to being a guest blogger for New Dream. Her early blogs describe how frugality financially empowered her, enabling her to take an early retirement at age 50 and live on her income. Her blog combines her personal experience with research and interviews.