On donations and dignity

I figure if I rant about something more than twice in a week, it probably deserves a blog post, so here we are. Let’s talk about donating. In much of my work with nonprofits serving individuals experiencing poverty and homelessness, we rely pretty heavily on donated items to provide services for our clients. I am continually baffled at what some I’m sure well-meaning people think is okay to donate. Expired or almost expired food, half used toiletries, ratty or dirty old clothing, broken toys. It’s as if donating to charities or nonprofits is the morally acceptable alternative to just throwing out your garbage, a way for you to simultaneously clean out the back of your pantry or closet and pat yourself on the back.

When people must rely on donated clothing and food, it’s because they have nowhere else to go. It’s very difficult to break out of the cycle of poverty when you’re not sure where your next meal is coming from. In much of the rhetoric surrounding poverty and homelessness, this often gets twisted into people looking for free handouts, looking to get something for nothing. Perhaps this is part of why people think it’s okay to donate junk – they’ve accomplished their good deed for the day and haven’t enabled the mooching behavior they so fear. The myth of the “welfare queen” is so harmful and pervasive, and so unsubstantiated if you really get into the numbers of who relies on government or nonprofit assistance and why, but that’s a blog post (or possibly an entire paper) for another time.

Don’t get me wrong, something is better than nothing, and I’ve yet to work with a nonprofit that didn’t appreciate donations. However, these throw away donations undermine any semblance of dignity we hope to preserve for those receiving these services. In all of the best nonprofits I’ve worked with, maintaining basic dignity is a major priority in determining the programming and services offered, and only being able to offer someone’s leftovers to them is in no way in line with that mission. It’s demeaning at best, and even dehumanizing – would you serve your own children expired food or give them stained clothes? Individuals experiencing homelessness still deserve to be treated with basic respect, and that includes being able to give them the help they need without giving them items that are no good. What does it say to a person when all you’re able to give them is someone else’s leftovers?

And while we’re on the subject of donations, please ask any nonprofits what they actually need before donating! Very often, they have wishlists of most needed items. Donating what there’s a need for, rather than whatever you have lying around, is much more helpful. Yes, you might predict (correctly!) that certain nonprofits will always have a need for diapers and formula, but there are certain sizes and brands that are preferred or needed. At New Moms, we have shelves and shelves of donated diapers up to size 2, but anything in bigger sizes is scarce at best. At Christmas time, everyone wants to donate toys and clothing for the kids – it’s harder to secure donations for gifts for the moms as well.

So, to sum up: please donate mindfully if you are able to donate to nonprofits. Consider what it is you’re donating, and how it might be perceived by the recipients, and check in with intended nonprofits to see what it is they actually need.


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