concentrated woman carrying stack of cardboard boxes for relocation

Best places to donate

Congratulations! You’ve weighed the options and decided that you can let some things go. That’s wonderful. Getting things out of your house is the next step in the decluttering process.

But be careful, this step can to trip you up.

The most common question I get as a professional organizer, after ‘Are you going to make me throw everything away?’* is ‘Where should my donations go?’

* No, I’m not going to make you throw everything away. If you haven’t chosen to let go of your stuff, then forcing you to get rid of it accomplishes nothing. You’ll just go get more stuff and the cycle will continue.

I had a client who diligently sent me away each time with a trunk full of donations. By the next week, she had bought just as much stuff, if not more. She decluttered to clear space for more things to come in but clearly the problem wasn’t decluttering, it was acquiring.

She didn’t mind where her things went, but you might.

Material scrupulosity

Randy Frost defines material scrupulosity as an excessive attachment to the fate of possessions. Once you own something, you feel responsible for what happens to it. And in a sense, you are. That’s why we recycle and donate where we can instead of just tipping everything we don’t need into the trash.

But like all good things, it can go too far. If you’re so concerned about what happens to your things that you want to control exactly who gets them in perpetuity, it can stop you from doing anything about them once you’re done with them.

The trouble with Goodwill

Many people tell me that Goodwill is a terrible place to donate to.

That they’ve seen the workers put perfectly good items into the trash.

And the reality is, Goodwill is a business. They’re there to make money and if your donations are too far gone to make money, they don’t keep them. Part of their business model is accepting the panful of dirt in order to sift out the gold. They do you a favor by not requiring you to to do your own panning before you donate, although they’d undoubtedly prefer it if you did.

Every other thrift store operates on exactly the same model. No one sets up shop and pays commercial rent so they can fill their space with broken, torn and stained items they can’t sell. That specialty destination you want to donate to doesn’t do it, Goodwill doesn’t do it.

We attach meaning to our things

And so the bigger question is, why am I donating something that’s not donatable? Material scrupulosity is holding you back. I’ve had clients who were distressed at the idea of a stuffed toy being consigned to the trash. They saw it as a living thing, rather than a collection of fabric and beads.

Of course, we all do that. We attach meaning to objects and that stuffed dolphin and your son were inseparable when they were two. But it was your son who was attached to the stuffed toy. The stuffed toy didn’t care – it couldn’t care, because it has no feelings. Toy Story was a charming movie but objects don’t have feelings. When your son outgrew it, it got left behind.

And yet when you see it, it triggers a sweet memory of that time when he needed it. Take a picture if you like but you already have hundreds. He carried it around with him for a year, it was in every picture you took of him.

The picture holds the memory and the thing itself can go. You don’t need it to remember. You don’t owe it anything except your gratitude for being useful for your son.

If you like, you can ritually thank it before you put it in the trash. But don’t think because it was special to your son, it’s going to be special to any other child.

When you take your kids to buy a toy, if you head to the thrift store, do you encourage them to pick the oldest, tiredest toy on the shelf? No, you tell them, “This one looks brand new!” and let them have a toy they can wear out themselves.

Best place to donate

You could tie yourself in knots trying to find a specific home for each nut, bolt and screw or you could trust the Universe to find the right home for everything. Plenty of people shop at Goodwill who have real need of the donations you give them.

If you want to pass your wedding dress down to your daughter one day, know that she really wants to choose her own dress. If you have a small item, like a tiny handkerchief she might like to carry that, but she wants her own dress.

Finding the “right” home for your wedding dress is going to tie you up in knots. Time spent researching online will uncover the reality that most places you can donate your wedding dress would need it to be less than three years old.

You could send it away to make angel gowns, but will you? This kind of ultra-specific home for your donations is another way to ensure nothing leaves the house.

If I’m wrong, please donate your wedding dress this week. That means packaging it up and standing in line at the post office or going to UPS and dropping it off.

I know, that’s a lot of work.

Weeks go by, months pass, and suddenly it’s five years from now and you’re still intending to send your wedding gown off to make angel gowns. The thought warms you and you start the cycle again.

Good intentions.

Ugh, too much work.

I’ll do it later.

Break the cycle

When you’ve decided to donate something, box or bag it up and put it on the passenger seat. It needs to be visible when you drive to remind you to get rid of it.

On errand day, stop by the nearest thrift store you come to. Goodwill, ARC, your favorite boutique thrift store, whichever it is. Drop the donations off and release those things to their fate. Useful things will get used, trash won’t and that’s okay.

It’s not your responsibility to house things until they come and clear out your house. That’s just leaving the decision to your family.

Thrift stores help us make those decisions

They take most things without question and there’s no charge for dealing with that box of tangled, half-working Christmas lights. We don’t pay for the massive dumpster they need to cart away the stacks of shabby, wobbly furniture nobody would buy but so many think are perfectly okay to donate.

They don’t harangue you for giving them puzzles that only have a couple of pieces missing, threadbare towels even the animal shelter couldn’t use, pictures that were dated when your parents stuck them up on their walls in the Seventies. They accept and deal with quite a bit of our trash.

We don’t want to think of our stuff as unwanted, so we tell ourselves that it’s all really fine merchandise and that thrift stores should be so lucky to acquire it for free. And if the thrift stores are so fussy, well then, we’ll just hold onto it until they come to their senses.

Anything rather than put it in the trash.

How long do you keep stuff?

My father was reminiscing at the dinner table some forty years ago, searching for the perfect example to make his point. He leaned back in his chair and casually mentioned the era he was thinking of. “I think it was twenty years ago,” he began. We fell off our chairs in gales of laughter, unable to imagine how anything that happened twenty years ago could possibly be relevant.

And yet how many of us hold onto things we’re going to use for twenty years and then some? We scoff at the rule that if you haven’t used it in a year, get rid of it. We know that most things don’t get outdated that fast. We value being able to root around and find something we knew we’d need, proving ourselves right once again.

How Long is Too Long?

Are you still punishing your things for not being quite right? Instead of releasing them to find new homes or go to their final resting place, have you opened up a branch of Purgatory in your basement where the things you no longer want, love or need are condemned to stay indefinitely? Do you hope they’ll improve if left in basement limbo?

That bulky, clunky old dresser doesn’t fit into anybody’s bedroom, not in your house nor in that of any of your extended family members.

But perhaps if you leave it in the basement for another ten years, it’ll magically turn into the smart mid-century piece you wish it was. Like a fine wine ripening with maturity, its particle board patina will morph into burnished walnut. The scrapes and dings that adorn its sturdy legs will smooth themselves out over time.

Time has a way of creeping up on all of us. Suddenly we’re not saving things for distant possibilities but squaring up to the reality that we have a lot more stuff now than we’ll ever need and it’s up to us to do something about it.

Your children don’t want better than ninety-five percent of it. They haven’t got room for any of it. They most certainly don’t want anything you took from your parents or grandparents and stuck in your basement. We live in the age of affluence and easy access to acres of stuff. We don’t have to hold onto a dresser because it’ll save our descendants so much money not to have to buy one themselves. Even if they take it, they’ll still buy their own and yours will go into another basement or worse, a storage unit.

Storage Units: Out of the Frying Pan, Into the Fire

If your things escape basement purgatory only to be consigned to the Hell of a storage unit, it’s not a positive step for them. Will they rest in a climate controlled setting? Most likely not. The dresser will attract a huge amount of dust, dry out even further, and continue its lack of usefulness. One day, someone will empty out the storage unit. They may carry the entire contents straight to the landfill, no matter how fine you think they are.

If you’d rather that happen than have to make the decision now, continue to send your things to basement purgatory. If you’d rather have some control over what happens to your things, it’s time to start decluttering.

Time to do something different

If it’s been twenty years since you saved something, certain it would come in handy one day, but that day has yet to come, perhaps it’s time to draw some kind of line in the cluttery sand. If you haven’t used something in those twenty years, odds are very good you won’t.

If your closets are full of business clothes but you’re not playing the corporate game anymore, why do you need them? Send them to Dress for Success if they’re still serviceable and be done with it.

Those stadium seats you used when the kids were in high school? They were lifesavers back when cold, metal bleachers were a regular hangout. But your kids are fully grown now, the grandkids are out of state. You’re right, those stadium seats are still very useful. Just not for you.

The jumbled red, yellow and blue magnetic letters have done duty on your fridge door for way more than twenty years now. Still perfectly good but when no one needs to play with them in your house, to keep them idling on your fridge is to prevent someone else from using them.

Keep Things Moving

It’s a fine line between being frugal and being unkind. If you’re holding onto something that you won’t use again, that means someone else can’t use it. If you wait too long, it’ll disintegrate and then no one can use it.

Have a look around in the basement or the attic and find something that you know you’ve had for at least twenty years.  This time, choose something that’s not a sentimental item.

Look at it with a critical eye. Although there’s been a certain security in knowing it’s there for you if you ever need it, assess whether it’s in good enough shape that you ever would use it.

Think about the probability that if you haven’t needed it for the past two decades, you would in the future.

Ask yourself how easy would it be to get another one.

And before you decide to keep it for another twenty years, think about whose day you could make by donating something that you most likely will never use again to someone who will.

You’re right, that item is still useful. “Feel great, donate,” they say. Feel great, knowing your kindness has made someone else’s day.

How about forgiving yourself for having all this clutter?

It’s not just you. Many people struggle to deal with the sheer volume of stuff out there that has made its way into their homes. Many people have brains that don’t take easily to the organizing game. We’re all doing the best we can.

READ MORE >>> How to declutter and organize

Declutter at a speed that feels manageable to you but still gets the job done and look at everything you think about buying from here on out with the most discerning of eyes.

Gratefully donate the good stuff to a thrift store and put the rest in the trash.

  • You’ll do better from here on out.
  • The thrift stores will help people right here in our community.
  • Your house won’t be full of trash anymore.

Win-win-win!

What do you have that simply needs to be tossed in the trash? It’s taking up space in your home, it’s not donatable, you couldn’t pay anyone to buy it at a yard sale, it’s just done. Can that be okay?

by Lucy Kelly


DON’T MISS OUT >>> Send It Away Saturday is my email list reserved strictly for people who want to get organized without getting overwhelmed.

2 comments

  1. This is a really good point to raise Lucy! A related issue though is how difficult it can be sometimes be to assess if something is “good” or not. My mom would have found a use for an old paper towel tube, after all.

    I guess my approach has been to donate a (literal) mixed bag. Some of the items are borderline — my mom would find a use, but quite possibly the thrift shop will throw it away. And that’s ok with me, although I then try to balance the work this means for them (which you’ve quite rightly pointed out) with the inclusion of some items I know that will get them a good price.

    In the end its all clutter, and it feels so good to Send it Away!

    1. That’s very true, usefulness is definitely in the eye of the beholder.

      I’ve also been hearing from people that they’re reluctant to donate things they think will get broken in the process of donating. I guess that would mean wrapping things like that more carefully and also noticing all the fragile things that do make it to the shelves?

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