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Charity Doesn't Begin in a Parking Lot

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

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.

R G October 03, 2012 at 12:31 PM
Thank you for pointing this out. I had no idea. Goodwill gets whatever I cannot pass along or sell on my own.
Mike Bruno October 03, 2012 at 01:18 PM
Nice piece Jeff.
Jeff Ward October 03, 2012 at 01:59 PM
Mike, Thanks! I can play investigative reporter when it's called for! Jeff
Beth Bales October 03, 2012 at 02:08 PM
This is just a funny Goodwill story. We've outfitted more than a few college apartments with items from Goodwill, so I fully support buying from there, if nothing else! This past summer, we had to get a ceiling repaired in one of the bedrooms my girls sleep in. On the first day, the repair person looked at a chair (loaded with stuff -- could hardly see it!) and said, "where'd you get that chair?" And glancing at it briefly and not too carefully, I said I thought it had come from my mother-in-law's house. "My parents had one just like it," responded Mr. Repair Man, "and then we had it." Then I looked again, and I said, "you know, I think that one came from Goodwill." "I GAVE it to Goodwill," he said. Goodwill is great. Love it.
Jeff Ward October 03, 2012 at 02:12 PM
Beth, Not only that, but, on occasion, you can come up with some amazing vinyl record finds. I'm still enjoying that copy of Robin Trower's "For Earth Below." Jeff
Dennis C. Ryan October 04, 2012 at 12:47 AM
I visited the Batavia Goodwill, and bumped into one of our Illinois State Representatives, also looking for bargains!
Justin Eggar October 04, 2012 at 04:54 AM
First, props for the support of Goodwill... I wholeheartedly agree. Second, I don't find the boxes to be that big of an issue. IF they were actually non-profit pick up locations. Space should only be provided to charities... Otherwise we run the risk of fraudsters taking advantage of unsuspecting good samaratins in our community. We can't allow that.
donate.wisely October 05, 2012 at 10:37 AM
Thanks for this, Jeff. Yes, not all donation bins represent a charity. And not all charities are created equal. It’s a good idea to research before donating. USAgain has always been for-profit. But a 2009 report aired by KIRO 7 Eyewitness News in Seattle interviewed a former manager of USAgain’s Seattle branch who alleged that the company “routinely pretended to be a charity so business owners wouldn't ask for rent on the bin space.” The former manager also stated “I helped place many bins, and never, ever did I mention ‘for-profit,’ because if I mentioned for-profit, the businesses were going to say ‘what’s in it for me?’ Since about 2010, USAgain has been phasing in a new bin design, as shown above, the latest version of which states “USAgain is a for profit clothes collection company. Deposits are not tax deductible.” That seems straightforward. But USAgain’s older bins were worded very differently. One sentence on those bins stated “We cooperate with schools, non-profits, city recycling programs and local businesses to bring this recycling option to your community.” Time Magazine in 2003 called USAgain’s bins “vaguely labeled.” Time Magazine also quoted a business owner in Lake Zurich, Illinois who had agreed to host a USAgain donation bin: “Never, never did they mention they were making money off of it. If I had known they were going to sell the clothing for profit, I wouldn't have gotten involved.” (continued in 2nd comment)
donate.wisely October 05, 2012 at 10:49 AM
(My 2nd comment) KIRO also reported in 2009 that the Washington State Attorney General's Office said USAgain was “not properly licensed to collect donated clothes” in that state. KIRO said the AGO added “if USAgain is misrepresenting that they're a charity, they are also likely violating Washington's Consumer Protection Act. Which raises a question: was the straightforward disclaimer on USAgain’s newer bins forced upon the company by the AGO in Washington State? Just wondering. But this story gets even stranger. KIRO and other media sources have tied USAgain to an alleged cult called the “Tvind Teachers Group,” whose top leaders are fugitives wanted in their native Denmark in connection with a multimillion-dollar tax fraud and embezzlement scheme. The KIRO-7 News reports: Part 1: http://www.kirotv.com/news/news/millions-clothing-donations-diverted-charity/nFgRJ/ Part 2: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7yb1G_vsc9E (Continued in 3rd comment)
donate.wisely October 05, 2012 at 10:59 AM
(My 3rd comment) Sorry for all the links, but here are a few other media reports on USAgain that support my comments: The Herald & Review, Illinois; 2011: http://www.herald-review.com/news/local/article_b3869dde-3401-11e0-ae2a-001cc4c03286.html The watchdog website Tvind Alert; 2012: http://www.tvindalert.com/companies/the-truth-about-usagain-ceo-mattias-wallander-and-the-teachers-group/ Denver Post, 2005 (re-posted at Int'l Cultic Studies Assoc. website): http://www.icsahome.com/logon/elibdocview.asp?Subject=BBB%3A+Charity+bins+suspect Time Magazine, 2003: http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,1005148-1,00.html (Continued in 4th comment)
donate.wisely October 05, 2012 at 11:10 AM
(My 4th comment) Gaia has also attracted media criticism for its questionable business practices as well as its alleged ties to the same Tvind Teachers Group. CBS5, San Francisco; 2006: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jjmLvYhrstA Chicago Tribune, 2004: http://articles.chicagotribune.com/2004-02-12/features/0402120028_1_gaia-bins-clothes (See also the 3 "related articles" in the box at the right side of the above Tribune report.) Thank you for allowing me to express my opinion.

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