The 5 ‘Cs’ to Ask Yourself BEFORE Donating Anything

It’s hard to believe spring is almost over and we’re headed into the summer months. If you missed the ball on “spring cleaning” – have no fear, there’s still time to start fresh!

Whether you plan to tackle the garage or basement this summer, you’re bound to come across items you’re ready to part with.

But before running to your local charitable organization to make a donation, it’s important to realize that even when we have good intentions of passing our items on to help others, not all items are ready to be donated (or should be donated at all).

Understanding how to evaluate whether an item should be donated is a concept I was reminded of recently while volunteering.

Earlier this year one of my friends connected me with the lovely folks at Homes Not Borders – a local organization whose mission is to provide the refugee, Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) and asylum-seeking population of the D.C. area with what they need to thrive and feel at home in the United States.

Their work involves furnishing and setting up homes for refugees, SIVs, and asylum-seekers that are resettling in the D.C. area. In doing so, they collect donations of furniture, housewares, and decorations to furnish the homes for arriving families.

If you ever wanted to see where your donations go and how they’re used, this is the place to donate!

Anyway, last month Ed and I had the opportunity to volunteer with them and set up a home for a family of 4 who just arrived from Afghanistan.

It was a FUN time shopping their warehouse for donations, loading up cars, unpacking, assembling furniture, organizing (I organized the linen closet and bathroom!), decorating, and then cleaning up afterwards!

It was a lovely time indeed! And made me miss my days of going to clients’ homes and sitting down with them and helping them create order!

But the best part of the experience was being among a group of kind-hearted souls all working together toward a common goal of helping others!

Here’s a photo of all of us after we finished setting up the home (for those of you who are new here, I’m the one in the mask lol):

Homes Not Borders Volunteers

And here’s a photo of some of the volunteers in action (including my husband Ed whose in the back assembling an IKEA chair!).

Homes Not Borders Volunteers Working During a Set Up

I regret not taking a photo of the linen closet I organized because people kept walking by saying “ooooo that looks good!!!!” 

Hehe… the linen closet did look good if I do say so myself! 

But on a more serious note, before our fun day of volunteering, I spoke with the organization’s executive director (Laura) and warehouse manager (Linda) about the donations they receive. 

And one of the frustrations they expressed is receiving donations that aren’t usable (which makes their job harder and slows down the process).

While it was funny to hear their legendary stories of the types of donations they’ve received such as a butter dish filled with butter or the toaster with an actual piece of toast inside(!), it was also so heartbreaking to hear. 

As an organizer (and human), I totally get it. Decluttering is hard.  

From the emotional attachment, to the decision-making, to the physical aspect of it, it’s a LOT of work – mentally, emotionally, spiritually, physically, and maybe even financially if you hire someone to help you. 

And once you finally muster up the time and energy to break through the overwhelm, weed through your things, and make your ‘donate’ piles, you just want your stuff GONE. 

And that’s when it can feel convenient to just bag everything up and blindly donate without considering who’s on the receiving end.

That being said, with the help of Laura & Linda, I thought it’d be helpful to share the five Cs to ask yourself before donating so you can donate with dignity for everyone involved!

And of course, depending upon where you donate, guidelines will obviously vary, but these questions are intended to help you determine whether your donations will be helpful.  

NOTE: this blog post contains images of actual items that were once donated to their organization. Some images are great examples of how to donate and others are great examples on what NOT to donate. I considered not including the unhelpful items because it felt shaming to the person who made the donation. However, then I thought, well, these photos are great teaching points on what not to do. And, there isn’t much education on what to donate vs. what not to donate. So if it helps provide guidance to the next person, that feels like a win for all. Plus, all of the items in the photos below are completely anonymous so nobody is actually being shamed here. Onward we go!

#1 - Is the item CLEAN?

Okay so the first “C” question to ask yourself is… “is it clean?” 

Meaning – is your item free from dirt, dust, mold, stains, spills, stickiness, crumbs, splatters, pet hair, odors, etc. 

While this can be a bit of a gray area because what may be “clean” to one person may be dirty to another person. And vice versa.

You’ll want to use your best judgment. Here’s a great example of a clean toaster oven that was recently donated:

Toaster Oven Ready For Donation

The best practice is to only donate clean items. Why? Because when dirty items are donated, you’re shifting the responsibility to clean your item to the receiving organization that is likely working with limited resources. 

Meaning – there’s an actual person that now needs to spend time removing all the crumbs from your dirty toaster like this toaster here!

Toaster Oven Not Ready For Donation

And while you’re still doing good by donating an item, it can be a net loss for the receiving organization because they are now slowed down in their process by having to either stop and clean the item or find a place to dispose of it if time and/or energy doesn’t permit. Both options require additional resources.

If you aren’t willing to go to such lengths to clean your item, your next best option is to post the item for sale (or for free) with a disclaimer that the item requires cleaning. 

For items that are past the point of cleaning or a health concern (like this moldy space heater that was once donated), it’s best to just recycle it (if you can). If not, dispose of it.

Moldy Space Heater

For items you aren’t sure about, simply call and ask the organization.

#2 - Is the item COMPLETE?

Okay so the second “C” question to ask yourself is… “Is the item complete?” 

Meaning- are all the pieces included? Is the set complete? 

Items include: appliances with cords & manuals, electronics with remotes & peripherals, furniture with all hardware, flatware & cutlery sets, puzzles or board games with all pieces, matching sets of sheets, bottoms with tops, etc.

Here are three guidelines to follow:

  1. If the item contains ALL pieces AND is USABLEbeautiful! Donate it! For items that contain all pieces but may be questionable (such as puzzles, an unassembled item with hardware attached), consider using painters tape to add a label indicating the status of the item. Here’s an example of a kind soul that made time to label their sheet sets before donating so nobody had to guess the size and if all pieces were in tact! 
Good Donation Example - Labeled Set of Sheets
  1. If the item does NOT CONTAIN all pieces BUT is USABLEFor items that are missing pieces but are still very much usable (such as a kitchen appliance without the physical manual or a board game without dice), simply adhere a note indicating what’s missing. For items that are missing pieces and is usable BUT may be questionable (like this box of random sheets!), it’s best to call and ask the receiving organization. Most will likely not accept, some will accept, and others may accept and recycle with textile recycling. Again, if you’re unsure, call and ask!
Example of Unhelpful Donation - Usable Sheets and Fabric But Missing Pieces
  1. If the item does NOT CONTAIN all pieces AND is NOT USABLE For items that are missing critical pieces making them unusable (such as a blender without a lid), best practice is to skip donating the item. Otherwise, you’re just shifting the responsibility to the next person. And what’s the next person supposed to do with a stool that’s missing a leg? 🙂  

Again, if it’s a gray area and you’re unsure, call and ask the charitable organization.

#3 - What’s the CONDITION of the item?

Okay so the third “C” question to ask yourself is: “what’s the condition of the item?” 

Meaning – does it work AND is it damaged?

Items in this category include: kitchen appliances, electronics, furniture, lamps, housewares, baby gear, clothing / shoes, etc.

Here are four guidelines to follow:

  1. If the item works AND it’s in good condition if the item works and it’s in good condition (fair, good, like-new, new), carefully wrap it up and pass it on for the next person to enjoy! Good condition includes “normal wear & tear” as we’re all humans and the intention of physical items is to USE them! For items that work and are in good condition but may appear “questionable”, simply adhere a note stating the facts like this lovely person did here with their working Instapot!
Helpful Donation - Complete Instapot
  1. If the item works BUT it’s in poor condition if the item works but it’s in poor condition (heavily scratched, damaged, dinged, dented, chipped, burnt, warped, etc.), best practice is to ask the receiving organization if they’ll accept the item since it’s still usable. This includes items that are engraved, monogramed, or embroidered. If the answer is no, the organization will not accept your item, your best option is to post the item for sale (or for free) with a disclaimer on the condition of the item.

  2. If the item is broken BUT it’s in good conditionif the item is broken but it’s in good condition otherwise, best practice is to repair the item before donating so you don’t shift the responsibility to another person. If you don’t know how to confidently repair the item or it isn’t worth your time, your next best option is to post the item for sale (or for free) with a disclaimer mentioning the item needs to be fixed. For items that are beyond repair, simply recycle or dispose. Items that are broken due to recalls / safety concerns (such as a crib) should never be donated. Instead, contact the manufacturer for recommended steps on disposal.

  3. If the item is broken AND it’s in poor condition – if the item is broken and it’s in poor condition, best practice is to recycle it. If you can’t recycle it within reason, trash it while remembering that everything has a life span. It served its purpose. Say thank you and move on.

#4 - Is it CLEAR what the item is?

Okay, so the 4th question to ask yourself is: “is it clear what the item is?”

Meaning – will a complete stranger know what the item is and know how to handle it?

Items in this category include: art, antiques, cultural items, spiritual items, one-of-a-kind items, things from a certain time period / generation, etc. 

If the answer is yes – an actual human will know your blender is a blender AND the item is clean, complete, and in good condition, pass it on.

Labeled Donation - Nicaraguan Ocarina

But if the answer is iffy and the average bear may not know your colorful handmade bird from Nicaragua is actually an ocarina, simply adhere a note considering the following information:

  • Description
  • Instructions
  • Production Date
  • Artist / Manufacturer Name
  • Model Name / Number
  • Size

Obviously you don’t need to include ALL of this information but a quick note that just says “ocarina” (or whistle) is just enough. 

And speaking of notes, for items with special significance (whether it’s clear what the item is or not), consider writing a note telling the story of the item and/or your intentions for donating. 

An example is: “Gift from sweet grandmother Betty. Looking for a loving home!” 

This makes your donation all the more special while making it easier for you to let go. 

#5 - Would I feel CONFIDENT gifting this?

Okay, so the last question to ask yourself is… “Would I feel confident gifting this?”

A good way to look at your donations is as if they are gifts to others. In other words, would you feel proud / confident to physically hand your item, face-to-face, to the next person?

If the answer is yes, beautiful. There is so much joy in giving with dignity for both you, the middleman / middlewoman, AND the end receiver. 

Here’s a picture of one of the volunteers at Homes Not Borders that happily received a clean, complete, clear, and in good condition set of sheets!!!!

Homes Not Borders - Community Outreach Manager

On the other hand, if the answer is no and you’d feel ashamed to hand your item to the next person, it’s best to skip donation centers remembering that you’re shifting the burden of the item onto an actual person. This doesn’t make you wasteful, this makes you considerate. 

Instead, look into alternative options such as posting an ad online with a disclaimer. Great places to post online ads are: Facebook Marketplace, Buy Nothing Group, Freecycle, eBay, or Cragslist

If posting an ad online isn’t feasible for you, look for a local recycling center. And if recycling isn’t an option, put it in the trash while being mindful of future consumption!

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