By Melia Smith, Phoenix-based development professional

Have you ever wondered what would happen to you if you ate a 25-year-old can of soup? I have.

Here is what I imagine happens upon eating a quarter-century old “non-perishable” food:

First, it tastes terrible and is reminiscent of lightly seasoned Elmer’s glue.

So how do we minimize the inflow of literal trash and useless donations, while also respecting the recipients on the other end of the donation spectrum and honoring the time of staff — which ultimately makes more space for true mission work?

Shortly after consuming the few spoonfuls you’re able to slurp down, something akin to a volcanic eruption happens inside of your digestive tract. Food poisoning? Don’t know her. She has nothing on whatever this is. By the time the ambulance arrives to get you, your home has been transformed into a Superfund Site. You’re sent to the nearest emergency room where you then have to explain that you not only were in possession of but you consumed a can of soup so old that it could rent a car.

Maybe you’re reading this like, “Melia, this is sick. Why are you manifesting an imaginary scenario in which I shit myself inside out from eating a very old can of soup? Why would I even have a can of soup that old?”

The thing is, that 25-year-old can exists.

A 25-year-old can of soup was an honored relic at a food bank that I worked at — every food bank probably has one. Before each volunteer shift, the volunteer coordinator would go through the instructions for sorting through the industrial size cardboard boxes full of canned and dried donated goods. The shining star of this repetitive presentation was the quarter century year old can that sat on a special shelf next to her office.

“Anyone want to guess how old this can is?”

People would call out their answers. Two years. Five years. Ten years. No one ever guessed 25.

The volunteer coordinator would make the age reveal with all of the charisma of a birthday party magician. She would quickly follow up with, “We don’t want this. This goes in the trash — for obvious reasons.”

But it apparently wasn’t obvious to the person who donated it. It also wasn’t obvious to the multitudes of people who gave us long-expired dried goods.

The can anecdote was always funny to the volunteers (and somehow still to the volunteer coordinator after repeating it at least once a day, several times a week), but I started to wonder: Why were we telling the volunteers to screen for this can and not giving supporters the same explicit screening directive?

Sure, we were asking people not to give us expired food or sometimes contextualizing our asks with, “If you wouldn’t eat it, don’t donate it.”

But here we were, still talking about this 25-year-old can, because we continued to get grossly expired food. There was a canyon-sized gap in the perception of acceptability between us and our supporters. There was a glaring difference between what we found to be an acceptable donation and what our donors considered acceptable. The gap was just as much our fault as it was theirs.

Is actual community need and respect for community reflected in the donations your organization accepts?

If you’ve ever worked at an organization that collects in-kind donations, you’ve seen your fair share of straight up trash, things that are so beyond the realm of usefulness that it’s hard to imagine anyone donating them in seriousness. Those of us who’ve worked in the direct line of contact with those donations have not only seen some shit but have had to look the donors of the trash in the face and, without screaming, thank them for it.

After repeatedly receiving donations that aren’t on your wish list or are in such poor shape that they’re unusable, you start to question your reality. Is our in-kind list up to date? Is there something on our website that is confusing to the public? Is there a perception in the community that we’re just willing to accept any and everything, literally?

As you assess what comes in, it’s hard not to get upset at not only the things that you see, but that someone thought that another human being should be on the receiving end, not to mention the time wasted purging donations to get to the useful stuff.

So how do we minimize the inflow of literal trash and useless donations, while also respecting the recipients on the other end of the donation spectrum and honoring the time of staff — which ultimately makes more space for true mission work?

Have a clear donation list and an explicit policy around what you accept (and what you don’t).

Don’t want gently used items? Don’t accept them. Is there a specificity to certain items on your lists (sizes, types, brands, etc.)? Your donation list should be clear. And if reasonable and relevant, offer a FAQ about why you ask for the things you ask for.

In-kind lists are rarely ever static, so any significant changes to the list should be made clear and public. Your policy should be explicit about donation rejection. Contrary to popular belief, you don’t have to accept anything that you don’t want to and a donor is not entitled to force their donation on you. The policy should be on your website and shared as needed with donors (i.e. including it in donation drive materials, donation FAQs, etc.).

Know that when accepting gently used donations, “good condition” is subjective.

What you consider to be in “good condition” and what a donor considers “good condition” are two distinctly different perceptions. Supporters sometimes donate their things with the lens of “not good enough for me, but good enough for someone else.”

Be explicit about what you consider to be in good or bad condition and challenge donors to consider the condition with a lens of dignity. If a supporter would not use or wear the items that they’re donating, then why would they think someone else would? For example, how would someone else feel about receiving a pair of dirty stained tennis shoes, regardless of whether or not they had shoes? The threshold of “good enough” is not an appropriate threshold for giving. This examination of the donation is a critical and necessary part of the emotional labor piece that organization staff and clients often have to carry.

A friend of mine once asked me if I thought that people donated items that were in bad condition because they’d never experienced poverty and couldn’t themselves imagine what it would be like to be on the receiving end of charitable donations. I think this is a really important consideration — the inability to connect with who is on the receiving end may have to do with their lack of lived experience. If they’re in an echo chamber of like-minded people telling them what a good thing it is that they donate, who is going to tell them otherwise?

One of the kindest and most compassionate things you can do for supporters and the people on the receiving end of the donations is to spread out some of this emotional labor. And don’t limit this labor to in-the-moment interactions; use proactive opportunities to challenge your supporters to think critically about the way they extend their support through in-kind donation.

Be willing to reject the donation.

After you’ve established clarity around what you will and won’t accept, be consistent about maintaining your standards. This means sometimes following through on your policy and saying no to a donation. The hope is always that someone will check your website or social media or call in before bringing a donation to your org, but the reality is sometimes they don’t. If your donation list is publicly posted and regularly updated, and you’ve done your due diligence in making clear what you do and don’t accept, it’s okay to say no.

There is a balance to strike here though. So for example, if you’ve changed the list of items of what you’ve accepted recently, consider having a grace period for receiving items that have been removed from the list. On the other end of the spectrum, if a supporter is a repeat offender of ‘donating’ things that aren’t on your list, a larger conversation is likely needed and enforcement can be less gracious.

Another layer to donation rejection is to read the situation with compassion. If you get the sense that the the supporter is giving this donation in good faith because this is the only way they can afford to support your organization is through in-kind donation, then acceptance may be the kindest thing you can offer, knowing that what they’ve given is going to have to be pitched or given to another agency who could use it. But be careful about defaulting to this because in doing so, you are choosing to center the potential shame of someone whose proximity to power is closer than that of the people on the receiving end of the donations.

Educate your supporters.

Saying no to a donation is a confrontational act and it may shock and upset someone who genuinely thinks they’re doing something good. Use the opportunity to educate the supporter about why you can’t accept what they’ve brought in. In educating them, leverage your organizational values, mission, and vision to guide you and help bring them back into alignment with why they support you in the first place. The objective here isn’t to make the supporter feel bad, rather to bring awareness to unintentional harm they may be causing to the organization and to people on the receiving end of their donations.

Consider education as a way to transfer some of that labor. Again, keep in mind, this may be the first time a supporter has been confronted about a reality of lived experience that they themselves cannot relate to. Encouraging the supporter to stop and think about how they might feel to receive those items or to think about the time stolen from the organization in sorting through unhelpful donations will give them pause next time they are purging their things.

Think about it this way: What if people considered giving their things away as an examination of their hearts?

The central message of the Marie Kondo method is a good example of this. In purging items, she encourages people to ask if an item “sparks joy” for them. If it doesn’t, it’s time to let it go.

What if we asked supporters to take it a step further? “This item no longer sparks joy for me/serves me, but will it spark joy for someone else? Will someone feel good about receiving this? Will the organization I give it to find it useful?”

Outside of those sometimes tough on-the-spot conversations, be proactive about education. If you rely heavily on in-kind donations, spotlight some of the items you collect on your website and on your social platforms and talk about why you collect them. Host a town hall or webinar on thoughtful donating. Sometimes a message can come through softer if it’s coming from someone advocating for you, so leverage other supporters to amplify messaging about thoughtful giving.

For example where I work, a lot of our volunteers do the processing and sorting of our clothing donations and work in our clothing closet. Some of them have been doing this for years, and are really in tune with the needs of our clients. They can speak to the challenges of sorting through donations and leverage their experience as a supporter to get a message across in a way that may be more relatable to other supporters.

Center your community in your decisions.

Is actual community need and respect for community reflected in the donations your organization accepts? If you haven’t done a survey in a while (or ever!) of actual client need regarding in-kind donations, do this ASAP.

Take some time to think about what it would look like to have regular open feedback loops with the folks who are on the receiving end of your donations. Sometimes there is a disconnect between the entity managing the in-kind donation list (development/marketing) and the entity closest to people on the receiving end of donations (programs/operations). Close the communication gap.

Program staff are going to have some of the best day-to-day intel on need because of their proximity to your clients. They should not only be part of processes that collect client feedback but there should be a channel for them to give real-time feedback as need arises.

Support the front line staff on the receiving end of these donations.

Supporters who are committed to the willful ignorance of thoughtless giving will undoubtedly be loud in their ignorance when being guided on how to donate. Don’t let your front line staff be harassed by them. As you update your policies, be clear about your willingness to support and coach them through difficult conversations — and be willing to take on the labor of having those conversations yourself if you are in a position of power.

While donating should be easy and convenient, it’s fair to consider that ease and convenience should not be the sole nor primary drivers of charitable support. When you center ease and convenience, you put all of the labor of donating — from start to finish — on the organization and the people on the receiving end of donations, eliminating an important element of critical thought on the part of donors. When you rethink how donations are accepted at your organizations, you re-center the community they are intended for, and establish important boundaries to facilitate future thoughtful giving.

Melia Smith

Melia Smith

Melia Smith (she/her) is a development professional, specializing in start up and in-transition environments. She currently oversees development at a homeless services agency in Phoenix, Arizona. The coronavirus pandemic has forced her to have hobbies outside of TV; currently she enjoys calligraphy and watercolor art, reading, and scrolling through Instagram for pictures of dogs. She agrees with Dr. Tressie McMillan-Cottom about the absurdity of LinkedIn, but you can find her there anyway, as well as on Instagram @notesfrommelia. Read more essays from her on an irregular basis on TinyLetter. Tip her for her work via Venmo @melia-smith-1.