Moving, downsizing, or clearing out storage areas used to be a win-win situation. You cut your clutter and donated items to a charity, which meant you could probably earn a tax deduction, too. The charity sold your goods in its resale shops to fund its programs.
But many nonprofits have adopted some procedures that might turn your attempt to do a good deed into a nightmare. Just ask Kay Paumier, who with her husband, Richard, sold their five-bedroom home and moved to Campbell, Calif., in the summer of 2010. With about half the square footage to work with, the couple were eager to give away thousands of dollars worth of furniture to a worthy cause. The local Goodwill sent a truck to their house but the driver refused to take a table because it had chrome legs and a cherry-wood desk that was deemed "too corporate." And he left a solid-wood captain's chair just because. It took Paumier four months to distribute her furniture using Freecycle.org.
These days, charities have specific criteria for what they will and won't take, and what they will do to get donations.
In the past, you could call a resale store to schedule a time for a crew to come by to get the items you wanted to donate. But that's often no longer the case.
"The cost of fuel, manpower, and equipment makes stuff expensive to pick up," says Robert Tolmach, co-founder of ClassWish.org, which matches donated items to schools that need them. There's also a liability factor if, say, an expensive vase is knocked off a table by a crew member or a homeowner says items are missing afterward. As a result, many larger social-service groups have abandoned or scaled back pickup service.
Even if a charity does retrieve items, you'd better live in the right ZIP code. A nearby thrift store rebuffed Judy Woodward Bates, who lives in Dora, Ala., when she tried to donate items because it didn't serve her neighborhood. "So I called their store in another county," Bates says, "and they refused because my official ZIP code wasn't in their zone." She ended up loading everything into her car and going to two other charities before finding a group that was willing to take her goods.
At least she found one. After repeated attempts, some donors simply give up. Suzanne Carter waited three weeks for the Salvation Army to pick up her parents' bedroom furniture in the Bronx, N.Y. Then the driver rejected it "because it had a few dings," Carter says. A single flight of steps put off other charities. "My lesson learned is that New York City sanitation will take anything," she says. "And that's who will be getting my donation."
Some groups require people to move big pieces to a garage or front porch before they're picked up. Ask friends or relatives to lend a hand. If a charity won't go to your house at all, ask if it partners with local movers who work for a discounted rate.
All the charity representatives we talked with, including those from Goodwill, Habitat for Humanity, and the Salvation Army, said anything they can't sell has to be recycled or discarded. In 2010, for example, the Salvation Army spent $10.5 million on landfill costs.
Many resale stores now restrict what they accept so their inventory won't end up in the dumps. That can vary wildly, even from neighborhood to neighborhood. Stores in the same town might have the same organization's sign out front, but each shop is run independently. As a result, most store managers decide what to take based on local buying habits.
Look for a good match—a store that sells the kind of items you'd like to donate. And ask about special policies and procedures.
If a group says it will send someone to pick up your stuff, be clear about exactly what you're donating, its location, dimensions, and any obstacles the driver might have to deal with (like stairs or narrow hallways) to help ensure he or she won't back out.
A website that was scheduled to go live in September, Web Thrift Store (webthriftstore.com) will make it easier to unload items. You post the goods you want to sell and select the charity the money will go to. The buyers send payments directly to the group, and your donation will be tax-deductible. By year-end the site expects to have more than 100 participating charities. Or try eBay Giving Works (ebaygivingworks.com), which lets you donate 10 to 100 percent of your sale to a charity.
Local rescue missions, churches, and public schools are often willing to go the extra mile for your donation.
This article appeared in Consumer Reports Money Adviser.