You know this scenario: you've got clothes and shoes your kids have outgrown, maybe old furniture you figure someone can use, old ties that have worn out their welcome, so you figure you'll just drop it all off at your favorite charity. That way some needy person will get some use out of it, and you feel good about making a donation instead of chucking it in the garbage, right?
It's not that simple. Sometimes, a person's generosity becomes a charity's headache.
"We certainly want the donations, but we want people to understand we need things that will benefit our children and families," said Barbara Weinstein, CEO of Broward's Family Central, a United Way agency which provides a full range of services for 117,000 needy families in South Florida.
Weinstein said her agency always needs diapers, wipes, baby food, gently used children's clothing and shoes.
"But we prefer not to have someone's worn-out old bathing suit, someone's broken bicycle, we prefer not to have a chair that when you sit on it, it breaks, " said Weinstein, giving actual examples of donated items. "We need things that are serviceable, our families are trying very hard to make a better life for themselves, we want them to have things that make them feel good about themselves."
Besides clothing, Family Central keeps a stash of emergency food rations at its headquarters, to help hold families over who have no food at home for the kids.
"We've had jars of half-eaten peanut butter donated," said Mary Monahan, one of the agency's employees who sorts through donations almost every day. "Please don't bring us 10-year-old salad dressing, either," Monahan pleads, as she described some of the weird things she sees.
"We got a bunch of men's hats that were really old, yellowed, and, on closer inspection, they had bugs living in them," Monahan said.
On the day we visited, we watched a couple of staffers open up bags of stuff that were dropped off in the lobby. Most of the contents were exactly what Famly Central wants, but there were also a couple of things that none of us could identify. Really, we had no idea what they were or what use they could have.
That's the crux of the issue: charities depend on donations, but useless donations actually cost money and staff time spent dealing with junk. Much of it has to be thrown out, because other agencies don't want ripped up clothing, shoes with holes, or unidentifiable mystery objects, either.
Before you donate, check your charity's website. It's likely to have a wishlist of items it needs to help its clients, like the one you'll find at www.familycentral.org.
The simple rule of thumb to keep in mind: if something is too worn out, too shabby, chances are no one else wants it, either.