Charities spar over clothing donations

Clothing donation boxes near the North Atherton Street Weis Markets on Friday, April 4, 2014.
Clothing donation boxes near the North Atherton Street Weis Markets on Friday, April 4, 2014. CDT photo

In parking lots all over Centre County, they sit, waiting for someone to come by and give them a shirt, a coat, maybe a pair of shoes.

They are drop boxes. At least four agencies are working in State College alone, with large donation containers silently soliciting people to toss in their unwanted clothing and shoes.

Some of them promote the idea of helping the needy. Some want you to save the environment.

Regardless of what the boxes say, Goodwill Industries of North Central PA is not happy about it.

The charity, which operates 20 stores in 13 Pennsylvania counties, works under a charter of collecting clothes and other goods that they sell to support a mission of helping employ people in need. Earlier this month, Goodwill sent out letters urging people to “get the facts” about the boxes before making a donation.

“These boxes are owned by an international for-profit corporation that makes money from the sale of donated goods,” Goodwill said in its letter. “These goods are often shipped outside the United States. Generous donors in our community are using these donation boxes, possibly believing they are supporting a nonprofit organization and that their items are staying local.”

Paul Guzik, vice president of retail, told the Centre Daily Times that the boxes threaten Goodwill’s livelihood.

“We’re trying to educate the public,” he said. “Donations are the(lifeblood)of our organization. We rely on them.

“Our donations have dropped off. There has been an impact in terms of clothing donations.”

Guzik could not give exact numbers regarding that decline in giving.

A sampling of parking lots in the area showed boxes from USAgain, Planet Aid, Community Aid and New Life Recycling. Each box had some kind of contact information, including a website, phone number or both.

USAgain states on its website that it is “a for-profit company that collects unwanted textiles and resells them in the U.S. and abroad, effectively diverting millions of pounds of clothing from landfills, generating new revenue streams for U.S. businesses and nonprofits, and fueling local economies in emerging countries.”

Community Aid is a faith-based nonprofit with offices in Hanover and Mechanicsburg that says it has a “primary purpose of raising funds for distribution to local schools, churches, synagogues, temples and nonprofit charitable organizations.”

New Life’s information could not be confirmed. The boxes have labels with a phone number that eventually rings to a blind voicemail message saying the memory is full. No concrete information on the company could be identified online.

Planet Aid, however, was adamant that Goodwill’s allegations are false.

“They have a long history of doing this all around the country,” said spokesman Jonathan Franks, who says Planet Aid has taken legal action against Goodwill in some areas.

Planet Aid’s boxes state they are nonprofit organizations with an environmental focus. “The projects we support thus aim to protect the environment, reduce waste, and increase the efficient use of vital resources,” the website says.

But Guzik said Planet Aid is not really a charity, that the organization operates in concert with USAgain in a for-profit manner. Franks flatly denies this, saying his group is not affiliated in any way with USAgain. The Internal Revenue Service backs up the fact that Planet Aid is a 501(c)(3) registered public charity.

Franks called Goodwill’s campaign “a sort of insane drive” to push other organizations, whether charitable or for-profit, out of the used clothes game. For his part, he says the more people doing the work, the better for Planet Aid’s goals.

“We just want to see more stuff recycled,” Franks said. “We don’t care who you donate to. Just donate.”

Guzik did encourage people to donate to St. Vincent de Paul Society, the Salvation Army and other local organizations that collect in addition to Goodwill.

“They stay in your community. They stay local,” he said. “I think many people are misled by the boxes.”

Follow Lori Falce on Twitter @lorifalce.