Are your donations helping or hurting charities?

Nonprofit thrift stores: Certain dropped off items are costing them money

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – We get it. You want to tidy up your house, get rid of all that clutter and help your community at the same time. But there's a mistake many of us are making that's actually costing some of our favorite local charities thousands of dollars a year.

Spectrum Thrift Store in Fruit Cove is a perfect example. On a typical day, the aisles are full of deals, the place is brimming with shoppers. Sounds great, right? It would be, except for the pile of trash sitting outside.

"When they blatantly use you as a trash dump, there's nothing that you can really do about it," said Spectrum owner Mark Tillman.

He's talking about items that are meant to be donations that are left by the door when the store is closed. All those items pile up and it can result in the store getting hit with some pricey trash fees every month.

Check your charity

There are several resources available online to learn more about charities near you and how your donations are used. Consumer Reports recommends checking out Charity Navigator and Charity Watch , but GuideStar is another helpful database. Some of these websites will require you to register to access that information.

"A thousand dollars if people drop stuff off and you can't use it and you can't break it down and put it in the dumpster," Tillman explained.

Tillman, who does what he can to help people out, tends to hire developmentally delayed workers to staff the store. However, because his trash bill is so high, he said he can't pay them as much as he would like.

Here's the thing, Tillman's story is not unusual. Not at all. We found it's the case all over North Florida -- including both HabiJax Restores.

"Here we have a ceiling fan that's been left at the door that is missing a couple of the blades," Rod Borom of HabiJax Restore showed us.

We learned Sertoma's Second Time Around in St. Augustine is having the same, costly issue.

"Often when we come in, these grocery carts out front have stuff piled on top of them. Things that we really can't sell," said Doc, the owner of Sertoma's Second Time Around.

In fact, we talked to nearly a dozen nonprofit thrift stores where shoddy donations that won't resell are creating a huge, expensive problem.

"Usually about once a week, or once every ten days, we will load up everything that's not recyclable and we will take it the landfill and pay the poundage to get rid of it," Doc explained.

That's because if it doesn't fit in their dumpster, it's going to cost extra. More than their typical, monthly garbage bill. If it's picked up by the waste company, we found out that stores have to pay per piece to dispose of any large items they can't sell. Usually, that's $20 to $30 for each item.

For Doc at Sertoma, that means forking over up to $600 a month. For Borom and HabiJax Restore, it's double that amount.

"It could amount to a thousand dollars each store, or more," Borom told us. "It's really depending on the month."

And the money spent on trash fees is money that could be making a difference for the communities these stores serve.

"The money we would like to pay to the county and support our mission, we are paying to the landfill and the county," Doc said.

Tillman told us, "We would be able to hire five of our kids and that is what that money would be going toward -- to actually give somebody a job opportunity."

Each charity we talked to explained that when people donate a non-working stove or tattered chair, they don't think the donors are doing it maliciously. They say the donors likely think someone is going to buy the item and use it in some way.

Since that's clearly not the case, and it's costing these charities money, we wanted to know: What is the right way to donate?

"It comes down to this: is this something you would have in your home? Is this something you would like to purchase and use?" Borom said.

Added Tillman: "Something that's clean, gently used is the stuff we would like to have. That's the stuff that sells in the store."

So if it's torn and tattered or it's not working, it's pretty simple: Check with your garbage company. With residential accounts, they might collect it for free.

In addition to sharing the right way to donate to cut down on the amount of trash these charities have to pay for, News4Jax also wanted to see if there was any way to get them a break on the trash fees.

We've been talking with Jacksonville city council members who are helping us connect with the sanitation committee. No solution yet, but stay tuned. We are working very hard to find one and we will let you know as soon as we get results.