Reach Into Your Wallet Before You Reach Into Your Closet

My home is in Central New Jersey, near the Pennsylvania border.  We are far away enough from the Jersey Shore to have not lost our home or belongings to Hurricane Sandy but close enough to her violent and destructive winds to have spent 12 days without electricity, cable, and reliable internet access.  In that time, the news we received was limited to what we could read on our phones or what we could muster up on a sketchy mobile hotspot connection.  Yet, it was obvious that the outpouring of help was astounding.  In fact, it was a stunningly immediate and powerful reaction to unfathomable devastation at the hands of Mother Nature.  As a non-profit employee, one-time international relief volunteer, and student of the philanthropic industry, I am fascinated by the reaction.  But was it an effective and efficient reaction?  That remains to be seen.

On Post-Hurricane Sandy Day 6, due to unsafe driving conditions, limited fuel availability, and widespread power outages the kids had no school – again.  So, I made the decision to round up some donations from friends and neighbors and head down to Tom’s River to help out a relief effort.  One Facebook post later, I had 2 more adults, 9 more kids, and 2 cars stacked to the max with everything from blankets to bottled water and plastic containers to Purina dog food.  We went to help a young couple who started a collection for the folks near Seaside Heights, one of the most hard-hit areas and the home of the “roller-coaster-in-the-ocean” image that has become the iconic image of the aftermath.

We spent the day sorting donations and organizing everything from food to clothing.  It was a good day, overall, but I admit that I left not feeling just grateful but skeptical, as well.  I was glad that we were asked to bring very specific items – dog food and cat litter for pet owners, and Tupperware for displaced people staying in hotel rooms with microwaves and canned food donations but no way to heat or store the food.  I was also pleased that the couple did not ask for clothing, and my appreciation for that grew with every bag we sorted.  Our group of opened bag after bag of…well…garbage.  We pulled out clothing that was filthy and ripped, we held our noses when we handled clothing clearly donated by a family of smokers, and we shook our heads in amazement as we tossed used underwear and bras right into the trash.  I was also increasingly frustrated at the percentage of summer clothing that was donated.  Yes folks, it is the Jersey Shore but it’s NOVEMBER at the Jersey shore – sundresses and tank tops aren’t really helpful.  To be sure, a lot of the clothing was clean, seasonably appropriate, and good quality.  Yet, we all realized pretty quickly that lots of people had taken the opportunity to clean their closets and done it while assuring themselves that they were helping someone.  It’s worth mentioning that there was no way to launder any clothing that was not fit for donation.

So here’s where I’d like to ask everyone to take a moment before you rush to make donations in the wake of a crisis.  If you really think about it, many people had a lot of damage to their homes but mostly on the first floor.  Where do you keep your clothing?  That’s right, mine is upstairs, too.  In addition, while your clothing is being loaded up on trucks with low gas mileage and being driven to the shore during a fuel crisis, clothing manufacturers all over the country are shipping brand new clothing donations to the same place.  Let me be clear – this is all a really well-intentioned problem but it is very much a problem.  Now you have relief agencies that are struggling to sort, store, and distribute clothing of varying quality to people who may or may not actually need it.  The needs will vary from one community and family to the next, but I would venture a guess that these folks will need drywall more than denim.

“Why in the world would a charity not just tell me not to donate clothing?” you wisely ask.  You see, it’s because non-profit staff have a deep-rooted fear of rejection.  We live in terror that if we decline any sort of donation from you, that we’ll not only never see you again but that you’ll tell all your friends and that your friends will hate us, too.  Perhaps we never really shook off the trauma of dis-functional high school relationships, but that’s a blog for another time.  So we’d rather graciously accept your donation, thank you sincerely, and then deal with the problem later when you’re not looking.  In addition, it takes grace, eloquence, and excellent communication skills to adequately explain to a donor why we simply can’t accept their donation, and even then the message isn’t always fully appreciated.

I propose that before you rush to fill bags with clothing you didn’t want or need in the first place that you ask the charity or recipient what they specifically need.  In some cases, you may find that the local school was wiped out of supplies but the kids are all just fine on clothing.  On the flip side, charities need to be specific when requesting clothing – asking for men’s sweatshirts, kids winter coats, or boots of all sizes is a lot more helpful and productive than “we’ll take anything.”  Because I promise you, you will get anything!  In addition, I think it’s only fair and right than a charity disclose to donors that any clothing that can’t be put to use will be shredded or sold as a fundraiser.  You then have the option to take back that Tommy Hilfiger sweater than you so hoped would be worn and appreciated or simply shrug your shoulders and say, “keep it – either way it helps a good cause.”

I’ll finish by imploring you to pay attention to what’s needed before you donate and when you do, please don’t be frustrated by what is requested.  It’s convenient, environmentally friendly, and helpful when we can donate items that we no longer need but that can be given another life.  But that’s less about giving what’s needed than it is about giving what we need to give – there’s a difference.  It’s wonderful when those are the same, but we all need to come to grips with the fact that sometimes giving what is desperately needed means reaching into our wallets, not into our closets.