Jul 30, 2014

Charity Doesn't Begin in a Parking Lot

And sadly, leaving stuff on your front doorstep isn't any better.

Charity Doesn't Begin in a Parking Lot

While I’m pleased the City Council is addressing the proliferation of Randall Road parking lot donation boxes, methinks it’s just another chapter in their consistent effort to avoid addressing real issues.

Word on the street is the Chronicle has FOIA'd the top Geneva city employee earnings (including overtime), and the results will make you long for the teachers’ salaries. And that doesn’t even include their benefits and pension packages which also put the educators to shame.

Then there’s that brand spanking new which miraculously doesn’t make as much as one staff position redundant, a sewer system that’s essentially been ignored for 25 years and a declining downtown.

Let’s not forget that my home assessment just fell by 4 percent. Extrapolate that city property tax postulate-wide.

Instead of any of that, we’re talking about donation boxes, liquor license holders running for office, and chickens. Though I’d like to see a little more bull-by-the-horn taking, I’m not completely blaming the aldermen, because it’s the mayor who sets the meeting agendas.

But since it’s the subject at hand, let’s get back to those eminently topical donation boxes. Not only are they a serious and overflowing eyesore, but as the Chicago Tribune reported last year, some of ‘em stretch the term “charity” about as far is it can go.

So the bottom line is, if you choose to avail yourselves of these convenient contraptions, please be aware that not all of these unmanned pickup sites belong to a charity. In fact, almost none of them do.

At first, I thought the Trib was a bit hard on USAgain, a West Chicago based textile recycler with a number of collection box locations in Geneva. Unlike some of the others, their containers clearly state they’re for-profit and clothing articles submitted are not tax deductible.

But Cheryl Lightholder, the Midwest Communication Manager for Goodwill Industries, said those USAgain containers weren’t always so forthcoming. Perhaps the Trib article convinced them to clarify their intentions.

Mattias Wallander, co-owner of USAgain, recently encouraged the Geneva City Council to allow the boxes. “Textiles is kind of the forgotten child of recycling,” he said, “We are competing with the waste can.”

But that ain’t the whole truth, either. Lightholder told me Goodwill (and Salvation Army) will gladly take less-than-stellar clothing because they can sell it on the same secondary market that USAgain does.

I agree—recycling is a good thing. But it’s important to understand that USAgain is not a charity, and textile recycling is a $1 billion industry.

But then there are those who have no compunction about purposely playing on our heartstrings.

The Trib also reported that Gaia, one of the biggest drop-off collection players, may claim to head up environmental projects all over the globe, but in reality all it does is collect and sell used clothing.

Florida-based businessman Jay Katari, doing business as Shoes for a Cure and Cancer Free America, has been called out for donating very little to those. The publicity got so bad that Johns Hopkins Cancer Center and other cancer concerns refuse to take money from him.

Despite their website claim that “hundreds of thousands” go to the “cause,” Go Green for the Cause, another “cancer charity” with 200 Chicagoland boxes, reported just $14,500 in revenue in 2009 with none of it going to any charity. The company said, “All funds raised have been utilized to cover costs to get started.”

There are legitimate players. The Salvation Army, which operates a host of drug and alcohol rehabilitation facilities, picks up goods from 75 area drop-off boxes.

I know what you’re thinking. I’ll just donate my used clothing to the folks who call and come pick it up. Sorry, folks, that’s just more of the same.

Some years ago, CBS Chicago investigative reporter extraordinaire Pam Zekman did an expose on Purple Heart Veterans and other similar organizations. Apparently, you’re lucky if 10 percent your donation ever makes it to a charity.

Not only that, but the American Institute of Philanthropy, a watchdog group that rates charities, gave AMVETS, Paralyzed Veterans of America, and the Purple Heart people an F, their lowest grade.

So here are my thoughts. First, let’s encourage Geneva to ban these unsightly boxes outright. If these firms want to rent space and collect discarded clothing, that’s fine. At least they’ll be contributing to our municipal bottom line. The $250 annual permit the council is considering isn’t even worth our time.

Then, box or bag up all of your worn out and unwanted articles of clothing and take them right on over to the Goodwill store on Randall Road in Batavia. They even have a drive-up where someone will be happy to help you unload the stuff.

As Lightholder told me, what separates Goodwill from the rest of these folks is their mission to strengthen communities by putting people back to work. And their 2011 financial results are clearly stated on their website.

There aren’t many sure things in this life, but Goodwill is about as close as it gets.

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