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What thrift stores want you to know before you make a donation

Here are some thrift store donation do's and don'ts.
Getty Images
/ Source: TODAY

Donating to a thrift store seems pretty straightforward, right? Round up the clothes, books and housewares that no longer spark joy, stick them in boxes or bags and drop them off at your local secondhand retailer.

Thrift shops are always looking for donations, of course, but there are some important do's and don’ts to keep in mind when giving.

First and foremost, ask yourself whether you would give the item to somebody you know, says Brendan Hurley, spokesperson for Goodwill of Greater Washington in Washington, D.C.

“We have a rule of thumb that we like to share with donors ... before they give something to Goodwill, they should ask themselves if the item is something that they would feel comfortable giving to a friend or neighbor,” he told TODAY Style. “If the answer to that question is yes, then it's highly likely that it's something that can sell in a Goodwill store. However, if the answer to the question is no, then it's probably not something that's likely to sell.”

If an item is completely broken or unusable, a thrift store probably can’t use it either.

What do thrift stores wish people would donate more often?

Different thrift stores have different needs, depending on the region and the demographic they serve. But there is one demographic that's often underserved.

“Men's clothing is something that I think probably across the board we always are in need of,” said Tamarind Tidwell, general manager of Boomerangs, a chain of thrift stores in the Boston area run by AIDS Action. “I would say women's clothing outnumbers men's probably 3-to-1,” which she attributes to the quicker turnover in women’s fashion trends.

Thrift stores are often looking for more men's clothing.
Thrift stores are often looking for more men's clothing. Getty Images

Amy Lyons, spokesperson for Goodwill Industries of Monocacy Valley in Frederick, Maryland, agrees.

“Men’s clothing is always in need for the stores,” she told TODAY. “It sells well and we don’t always tend to get a lot of it in donations.”

Another surprising need for some stores? Housewares. It can be a “real challenge” to get enough quality housewares donated to Goodwill stores in the Washington, D.C., area, Hurley said.

“We get plenty of clothes and we welcome them, we want more of them, they're big sellers. We generate a lot of revenue off of them to fund our job-training programs,” he told TODAY. “Housewares tend to ebb and flow, so we're always looking for quality housewares to sell. They're in high demand. We just don't get enough of them.”

Donation wish lists vary from store to store, so it’s always good to check with your local retailer about the items they need most.

Goodwill donations dos and don'ts; what to donate to Goodwill

What shouldn’t you donate?

Thrift stores just can’t accept certain items, and when people donate them anyway, it uses up valuable employee and volunteer time to process them. In some cases, stores may even have to pay to dispose of unsellable items.

Think twice before donating any of the following:

  • Anything “gross” or unsanitary

“The challenges for us are probably things that are, for lack of a better term, gross,” Tidwell said. “So, things that have been sitting out in your yard for too long or are moldy, (mildewed), damp ... if we get one of those, even in a batch of clothes, it can easily ruin other things. It means we can lose out on donations.”

Apart from hygiene issues, wet clothing could be a safety hazard.

“We don’t know what it is, if it’s water or maybe it’s a chemical on it that’s making it wet,” Lyons said.

Many stores also don’t accept humidifiers or any appliance that could contain mold or mildew, and the same goes for mattresses, due to cleanliness and hygiene concerns.

An employee sorts through donated clothing at a Goodwill in Arlington, Virginia. Workers check each item to make sure it's sellable.
An employee sorts through donated clothing at a Goodwill in Arlington, Virginia. Workers check each item to make sure it's sellable. Getty Images
  • Recalled or dangerous items

Most thrift stores will not accept any manufacturer-recalled items. Goodwill won’t accept any items that do not meet the latest safety standards of the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission.

“Donors should check the Consumer Product Safety Commission to verify if an item has been recalled prior to making a donation as well as check with their local Goodwill,” Brian Itzkowitz, head of retail operations for Goodwill Industries International, told TODAY in an email.

In general, due to safety regulations, most stores won’t accept used baby car seats, walkers or bike helmets, among other restricted items.

Also, don’t donate any dangerous items, like weapons or fireworks, or hazardous chemicals, such as paints, fuels or lead-acid batteries.

  • Broken or damaged items

This one is a little more complicated. Thrift stores may accept damaged items, but it depends on the store and the item in question. Tidwell notes that Boomerangs stores around Boston do accept damaged clothing because the store can resell them to textile recyclers.

However, other stores, including Goodwill, generally don’t accept severely damaged clothing or shoes. And Tidwell says her stores can't accept household items that don't work, like broken lamps.

In addition, check with your local thrift store before donating broken or stained furniture, or furniture covered in pet hair.

  • Large appliances

Thrift stores generally don’t accept large appliances, like dishwashers, ovens or refrigerators.

“We just don't have the space to store them,” Hurley said.

The Goodwill stores in his region also don’t accept extremely large or bulky items, including swing sets, swimming pools and building materials, like tubs, sinks and doors.

What happens to donated items that stores can’t use?

Thrift stores have to get creative when it comes to dealing with donations they can’t sell — and that can be a lot of items. Tidwell estimates that just about 60% to 70% of daily clothing donations to Boomerangs stores are usable.

The situation is similar for the network of thrift stores run by the Volunteers of America of Ohio & Indiana. Their stores process about 300,000 pounds of donations every week, according to Amy Stacey, the organization's vice president of retail operations. However, only about 70% of those donations make it onto the sales floor, she told TODAY. The rest have to be recycled or dealt with in some other way.

Some thrift stores resell damaged clothing and shoes by the pound to textile retailers. Stores may also sell bric-a-brac items to third-party buyers, who may in turn sell them or recycle them.

Goodwill sometimes turns unsellable books into insulation and they also sell electronic waste to Dell, which recycles the parts. Some Goodwill organizations even hold live auctions “where people bid on bins of items without knowing what is inside,” Itzkowitz told TODAY.

Other times, though, thrift stores have to pay disposal costs to get rid of nonrecyclable items, which “can be kind of a burden for small organizations,” Tidwell said.

Tips for donating

Once you’ve double-checked that your local thrift store will accept your items, what’s the best way to donate them?

Many thrift stores love it when people organize their items first.

“It's really helpful if people are donating to think about separating out your donations by type,” Tidwell said. “So clothing, books and … kitchen.”

Also, keep safety in mind.

“We've had instances where people will kind of wedge a kitchen knife between all of their clothing, and that becomes dangerous when we're sorting it and transporting it,” Tidwell said.

And Lyons recommends not making bags or boxes too heavy to avoid injuring employees who have to lift them.

Finally, if you want to be a “superdonor,” wash clothing before donating it — because the truth is, most thrift stores don’t launder clothes before they hit store racks, Tidwell said.

“People that actually wash their clothing before they donate and kind of fold them nicely, we always love that,” Tidwell said. “If donors can do that ahead of time, that would be amazing. I understand, though, that's not always possible, but even if people have some sort of questionable things they weren't sure about, putting those in a bag and just writing like damaged clothing on it probably would be helpful for our staff, too."

Bottom line: Use common sense when it comes to making donations and check with your local store about what they do and don’t accept. And remember the whole point of donating is to help stores reach people in need, whether they’re providing health services, helping job seekers or raising money for veterans or the homeless.

“Everything we do in the stores, we raise money for programs that we operate, so we take it very personal,” Stacey said. “We are taking the merchandise and creating funds to help people in the community.”

This story was originally published on Sept. 20, 2019.