Friday, July 11, 2008

Man vs. Machine

On May 25, Bill Ellison died. Who is Bill Ellison, you ask? He founded Value Village. I mention this because Value Village, Unique Thrift, and the ilk often show up on this blog, in the form of Blog the Blogger responses and in the comments section (see Monday's post, for example). For many shoppers, all thrift/resale stores are the same: a place to find cool stuff at a reasonable price. For those more discerning shoppers, though, there is an important distinction to be made between Goodwill (and Salvation Army) retail stores and the rest: Goodwill is a 501(c)3, a nonprofit; the others are not.

What does this mean, exactly? It means a couple of things. First, it means that all purchases at a Goodwill of Greater Washington retail store go right back into Goodwill's mission, the training and employment of people with disabilities and disadvantages. Whether that's in the form of salaries for retail employees, funding for training programs, or general operating funds, all of the money earned is for Goodwill of Greater Washington and stays right here in the D.C. community.

Contrast that with Value Village, whose Nonprofit Alliance program pays only a portion of their revenue to a multiplicity of charities, not necessarily located in the community where there stores are located. Or with Unique Thrift, whose charity program pays nonprofits for their used merchandise, then turns around and sells it at a higher cost in their retail stores. Alternatively, if you donate directly to these types of retailers, they donate a set cost to nonprofits (as little as 10 cents, for example) for every pound of merchandise you drop off, meaning that your charitable tax deduction is significantly lower, as well as your overall contribution to charity. While both companies certainly are giving back to selected nonprofits, you never quite know where your money's going when you shop with them.

Even more problematic are so-called charitable donation boxes that are often found in supermarket and gas station parking lots. Dropping off your gently used merchandise in these types of boxes often means that you're supporting a for-profit enterprise.

The box to the left, for example looks completely legitimate and leads you to believe your donations are supporting the prevention of drug abuse, possibly by the police and school system or maybe by D.A.R.E. Reading the fine prints on the sign to the right, however, (see the close-up below) reveals that it's "Not represented as a charitable solicitation, all proceeds go to the unit owner," which means you're not making any charitable donation at all.

And in cases where the boxes might have a .org web address listed on the side, often as little as 1% of the proceeds from your donations are actually going to charitable causes. The rest are sold off in bulk as pure profit for the organization, who has done nothing other than plunk the box down in that location for your convenience.

So what's a responsible resale and thrift store consumer to do? First, know that any purchase at these types of stores is an environmentally responsible one. Buying second-hand not only makes financial sense, but contributes to a huge system of clothing and household goods recycling. Good for you!

Second, be informed. All of these stores and nearly every donation drop box have websites that clearly detail the retailers relationship to nonprofits. And if the retailer is a nonprofit, check out their 990 tax forms to see where the money's coming from and where it's going. Sites like GuideStar provide reports and other information on thousands of nonprofits for free.

Third, don't be afraid to talk to the sales associates and managers at these stores. If you have questions, find out who can give you the answers. That's not to say that every cashier will know the organizational workings of his or her place of employment, but they should be able to direct you to someone who does. Knowledge is power, right?

Right on. Thanks for letting me share this with you today, dear readers. I know we all have our favorite resale and thrift stores and it's great to swap stories and trade tips on this blog. I like that! Just know that any purchase made at a Goodwill Retail Store, on the DC Goodwill eBay store, or on funds Goodwill's mission of training and employment for people with disabilities and disadvantages. And I love that!

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