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Nonprofits juggle the costs of unwanted donations and alienating donors

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MERS Goodwill
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Nonprofits, such as MERS Goodwill, face a dilemma over how to handle unwanted donations that can cost organizations a lot of money to deal with, according to a new paper published by researchers at Washington University.

Old tube TVs, used paint and artificial Christmas trees with missing pieces are just some of the things that end up at nonprofit donation centers and are expensive to dispose of properly.

Many nonprofits have rules against accepting certain items, but they face a dilemma when it comes to rejecting these unwanted donations. Doing so also comes at a cost, according to a new study from researchers at Washington University’s Olin Business School.

Kaitlin Daniels, assistant professor of supply chain, operations and technology, found that people who have been turned away from giving certain items are less likely to donate again.

“They become less optimistic about being able to donate to this nonprofit in the future, and that’s a potential cost for a nonprofit organization because they rely on repeat donors,” she said. “Just because a donor offers something that isn’t wanted in this moment doesn’t mean that that donor doesn’t represent value in the future.”

She said one solution for nonprofits is to find a way to make people feel like they’re still contributing something to the organization.

“So this might be suggesting that that rejected donor donate money. It could also be something that’s not monetary in value — something like signing up for their mailing list, signing up for some future donation opportunity,” she said.

Daniels also suggests that consumers do their research about what an organization actually needs at a certain time before offering up their unwanted items.

Goodwill ends up with plenty of misfit objects that people no longer have a need for.

Mark Kahrs, executive vice president of retail operations at MERS Goodwill, said people donate all kinds of things that the organization can’t use, even though they have guidelines against accepting things like building materials, car parts and mattresses.

“People don’t know what to do with their stuff a lot of times when they’re done with it, and I think people have an emotional attachment to their stuff and so the idea of throwing it away sometimes just feels icky,” he said.

During the pandemic, Goodwill stopped accepting furniture donations because there was no longer space for bulky items.

Kahrs encourages people to look at the guidelines for what can and can’t be donated, and seek out proper disposal sites. Before the organization stopped officially accepting old TVs, he said it was spending about $200,000 a year to recycle them.

“At some point, we just had to say this is bad business on our part, that we just had become the dumping ground,” he said, adding that MERS Goodwill still pays annually to recycle some TVs.

Kahrs said sifting the good from the bad is just part of the cost of doing business.

Follow Corinne on Twitter: @corinnesusan

Corinne is the economic development reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.

Send questions and comments about this story to feedback@stlpublicradio.org.

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