Wednesday, October 19, 2005

In-Kind Donations

Reading other blogs today, I came across a post from Mark Cuban. What began as a simple comment to his post made me think it's important enough to discuss as part of my blog here. His blog entry blog entry was to do with his own desire to contribute clothing to a charity involved in the Katrina Relief operations.

The logistics issue of in-kind donations is more complex than most people acknowledge. Sites like FreeCycle have created internet-driven mediated "dumping grounds" which are great for non-response driven interests. By "non-response driven" I mean non-crisis, non-appeal oriented. It's a kind of Craigslist specific to connecting demand & supply in tacitly non-commercial transactions. And it works great! But in any major disaster relief, people wanting to "do good" inevitably start piling up clothes they want to get rid of for donation. I believe charity is inherintly a refined taste motivated by a self-centered desire so it's understandable that for many people, a disaster is the perfect way to do some late or early wardrobe spring cleaning.

But in-kind donations, especially of clothing are a logistical nightmare to charities, and even more complications arise when clothing is gathered in America (or Canada) and shipped abroad. Articles like this one at the San Francisco Chronicle and this one on CNN scratch the surface of the problem.

In local charities, in-kind donors would be surprised to know a good portion of their donated clothes are shredded and sold by the pound for small amounts of money by the receiving charity. I'm sure Marc's clothing wasn't too shabby but for the most part, the clothes people opt to donate are often shabby and raggy. "Beggars shouldn't be choosers" is simply not respecting people's dignity and self-respect and furthermore, when sending clothes abroad, cultural sensitivity and climate-appropriate clothing is often not a consideration of the donor.

Economists also argue that in-kind donations outside of your own country also can have disasterous consequences on local economies. Rich countries that mobilize huge respoonses of food, clothing, etc (as opposed to funding local sourcing "in-country") can have their good deeds serve as economic aftershocks! was launched by the i2 Foundation. This is a great start in the right direction! I'm interested to know what the Relief 2.0 team thinks about aidmatrix but from what I know of some of their success stories, this is the kind of procedure and process and could eliminate significant amount of wasteful donations in the future.

Over at, the charitable website I run, when a project is listed on our site, we offer the charity working on that project to list an appeal for in-kind donations. I'm not at all satisfied with our interface and our system should be much smarter than it is. An example of what is currently on the site is Click on the open box icon on the profile page and you will see our very elementary system.

We're working on a new version which will assign a specific dollar value to each item requested. I want Marc and all the other donors who give clothes to get equal recognition for their donation as someone giving money. In our new version, the total raised will be updated to reflect the calculated dollar amount. This would work well with food, equipment and supplies but the the interesting side-effect for clothes is that the real value for an item of clothing would be far-off from the perceived value of the donor. If Marc donates his gucci jeans to a charity on our site, he might have paid $600 for them but in our system, only be credited for a $30 donation. That said, that might be a useful message itself! ;)



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