15/09/2009

How To Donate To Charity Shops (an insider’s guide)

After reading the title of this post, I'm sure most readers will be thinking 'I know how to do that, you get a bag, put donations in, and leave it to be collected or drop it off at the shop'. Well, prepare to be educated! I have been volunteering at a local charity shop for the last two months and I am going to tell you how you can put in a little extra time and thought and make your donations much more valuable to the shop you donate them to.

There is a lot of work for volunteers to do in charity shops – we have to sort donations, work at the till, put items out on display, price items, clean, organise, steam clothing, alphabetise books, and bag unsaleable items to be sold to recycling companies.

Sorting donations is always our top priority because we don’t have space to keep unsorted donations in bags, and we want to get the best things on the shop floor immediately, but unfortunately it is the most time consuming task. One afternoon I spent almost my whole four-hour shift sorting a couple of bags, whereas last week I spent the same amount of time steaming nearly two racks worth of clothes. As anyone who has ever volunteered or worked in a charity shop, or watched the first episode of Mary Queen of Charity Shops will know, we get some really crappy donations. Stuff that is useless, broken, unsellable. We also get some amazing, good quality donations, but they are often mixed in with the rubbish.

Obviously we appreciate all donations, pretty much everything we get will be sold, if not on the shop floor then to recycling companies, but if you want to help us maximise the profit made for our charities, there are a few, simple, not very time consuming things that you can do to reduce the time we have to spend sorting and otherwise dealing with items that cannot be sold.

1. Do the research

Make sure that the shop you are donating to actually accepts the items that you want to donate. My manager had to turn away a large donation of bed linen because we are a very small shop and don’t have the space to display it. Another charity shop in the same street as the one I volunteer in doesn’t take clothing donations as it is an even small shop than ours, they only take books, cassettes, CDs, records and bric a brac.

Most charity shops do not take electrical items, because they have to be tested by a qualified PAT tester before they can go on sale. The shop I volunteer at does take electrical items, because we have someone to test them for us. All you have to do to find out whether the shop can take electrical items is ask! If you don’t regularly pass by the store and they are part of a large charity with its own website, you can look up the charity online and there should be a section for stores that lists addresses and phone numbers.

There are also other items charity shops cannot sell, for example, anything that can be used as a weapon, which includes metal knitting needles! Here is the British Heart Foundation’s list. You are better off finding a new home for things that are in good condition but can't be sold in shops by using a local e-mail list or putting an ad in your local paper.

Charity shops also won’t sell games and puzzles with pieces missing, we have to check through before putting them out to make sure all the parts are there, so make it worth our while!

Charity shops usually have deals with rag collectors, and at the shop I work at, the vast majority of the items we can’t sell on the shop floor can still be sold to recycling companies, we very rarely throw anything away. But our shop seems to be a bit of a special case, on Mary Queen of Charity Shops one of the shops that was featured had to spend a lot of money having unsaleable items collected by the council and taken to landfill. If you don’t have time to ask, it is best not to donate unsaleable items – except clothes – and to put them in your own bins.

2. Inspect clothing

If the clothes have stains or holes you are not willing to repair yourself, or otherwise look very worn, charity shops won’t be able to put them on the shop floor, but they can sell them to a rag collector and make a few pennies per kg. You can save volunteers time sorting by putting them into a separate bag and writing “rags” on it. They will still check through it but it will be a lower priority.

Please make sure the clothes are clean. If they have any marks on them, even marks that are obviously not stains and would come out in the wash, they will probably end up in a rag bag. Very few charity shops have washing machines on the premises.

However, clothing donations don’t need to be ironed! Charity shops usually have irons, at least, in the shop I volunteer at we have a steamer. After being folded in the bag they will need to be ironed or steamed anyway, so don’t worry about making sure they are pressed.

3. Don’t think too small

Most charity shops don’t have the space to take large items, like furniture, on a regular basis, but often they can take one or two, just ask. The shop I volunteer at had a chair, several mirrors and a bookcase when I last went in.

Large organisations that run charity shops often have specialist shops that do take furniture. Check out their websites to see if there is a store near you. Here is Oxfam’s list.

4. Don’t think too big

One of our biggest sellers is jewellery! We have lots of bangles and 'karma beads' -remember how every teenage girl in the UK had those back in the early noughties? They’re taking over a charity shop near you right now!

Make sure any earrings you donate have backs, and if something is real gold or silver, write a note so staff can make sure that they price it accordingly, or let someone know when you hand it over.

There are a couple of baskets by the till at the shop we work at, and we fill them with little things like yo-yos and packs of cards and marbles and keyrings (and a few karma beads of course). People often pick up these items whilst they’re waiting.

Make sure they get to use in good condition and wrap them in a couple of bags or tissue paper, or put them in a box.

5. Have a look round whilst you’re in the shop!

Obviously if you’re donating using one of those sacks that get put through your doors and not visiting the store this is irrelevant, but if you are coming in, take a look round! Charity shops have loads of great stuff, the cardigan or scarf or hat of your dreams could be awaiting you!

Coming soon: How To Shop At Charity Shops/Thift Stores (an insider’s guide in three parts)

5 comments:

  1. "Mary Queen of Charity Shops" was an eye opener about the junk that gets handed in but I do understand that some find it hard to work out what should be donated, recycled or binned. Personally I find it hard to believe that we send textiles in any form to landfill. I am lucky enough to have a council recycling collection service that takes textiles and I put anything that isn't good enough for a charity shop into that. I also make patchwork quilts from recycled clothes and think this lends them a certain quality. I have wondered why charity shops don't make up packs of patchwork fabric for quilters from clothes that aren't good enough for sale but guess this is down to time and space (there must be local art and design students who would take this stuff off their hands if asked?). I find it almost offensive that some shops actually throw things away - there should be some sort of recycling support for them from local councils. Finally I suggest the Freecycle network (internet search for your local one) for anything you are stuck with before it goes to landfill.

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  2. Great post! I was a volunteer for 18 months and if everyone had followed a bit of common sense then it would have saved a lot of time. People don't seem to realise by dumping unsold car boot items and things unfit for sale that they are being counterproductive as it takes so long to deal with.

    On the other hand, volunteers who make big holes in clothes with the tagging gun make me cross! Through the seams or a label, people! I've just had to bin a perfectly good top I bought for my son as the hole has spread so much.

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  3. This is very considerate and thoughtful of you to write this up for us :) Thank you!
    And I'm really looking forward to your upcoming posts on how to SHOP properly at Second Hand stores.

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  4. Fab post, the only thing I must say tho, is that the electricals only have to be PAT tested, and although you need training to do PAT testing, you don't have to be a qualified electrician

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  5. Aspidistra - The patchwork fabric idea is a nice one but you're right, the fabric would have to be cut up and packaged and there probably aren't enough quilters out there for it to be worth the extra time and effort. To be honest, the vast majority of the clothes that get ragged are unlikely to be of any interest to quilters or anyone else - they're usually man made materials that look horrible or very worn out cotton. If something has a interesting print on it but is a horrible garment it's likely to sell anyway to someone who wants to refashion it. It does really annoy me too that some shops have to pay to have unsellable donations taken to landfill. Like I said, my shop sells practically everything that can't be sold in the shop on to recycling companies but we are in Greater London, this option may not be available to everyone.

    Claire - Arrrgh that's so annoying! I was told straight away when I started volunteering in the shop to only tag labels. If it hasn't got a label we usually put a string label on the hanger instead.

    nevina - Thank you! I aim to entertain and inform. I have one of those posts drafted already, so it should be up soon.

    Hazel - Thank you! I've edited the post to put that in. I didn't think you needed to be a fully qualified electrician, but I didn't know what the qualification you need was actually called, and I was too impatient to wait until I could ask someone before posting!

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