The False Charity of Clothing Drives

Clothing DrivesThe story goes something like this:
A typical church in a well-to-do neighborhood is inspired by the stories shared by a visiting missionary. In an effort to contribute to the needs that the missionary has shared the church has a clothing drive and encourages members to donate their winter coats for those who don’t have a coat to keep warm. The drive is a wonderful success and the missionary sends word of how the coats have benefited the people she works with. This is a wonderful thing.
The following year, the church again encourages it’s members to donate their coats and clothing and again they fill boxes with used clothing and coats. Now we have a problem.

Why is this a problem? The needs of the community are being met, with coats and clothing coming their way. And to the degree that those needs are met it is hard to critique without being looked at poorly. Yet I will still address my concern about the church.

Let me entertain you with some questions:
1. Have you ever participated in a clothing drive?
Having heard about a need in the world, you recognized that you had more then enough for yourself, and you where compelled to share your possessions with those in need.

2. Look at your closet now. Does it reflect those same convictions that moved you to donate your clothes in the first place?

3. More specifically, if I looked at your closet now, would I be able to see your convictions reflected, or would I say you are a prime candidate for our next clothing drive?

See, the problem with clothing drives is that often they result in a “hand me down” sort of charity. We donate our old, out of fashion, and undesirable clothes and make room in our closets for the new wardrobe we’ve been eager to purchase. Not only do we physically clean out our closet, but do it in the name of “charity” as if these actions are a noble act of giving. (If I am not describing you, please don’t feel judged or feel the need to defend your actions). This is a “false charity.”

What am I suggesting instead? I would like to see convictions drive our actions, not events like a clothing drive. If you have two coats and you only need one, then you should give the other away. The next time there is a coat drive your only option should be to buy a new coat and donate that one to the coat drive, because the one you currently have you need. If you have more shoes then you need you should give them away, and if you have more clothes then you need you should give those away too.
A church full of people living out their convictions would have no use for a clothing drive (unless it was to collect new items), because every member would have already given away their excess.

“The man with two tunics should share with him who has none, and the one who has food should do the same.”*

26 thoughts on “The False Charity of Clothing Drives”

  1. I definitely agree with all of your comments. The problem lies within the practical application of your comments, particularly in the American society. How do you define “need”? One could say that they only “need” one coat. One could say that they “need” coats appropriate to differnt functions, i.e. work coat, dress coat for church, etc. One could say that they “need” coats of different weights for different seasons. In our society, we will almost always default to seeing our “needs” as great. So, even if we say we’ll keep only what we need, how do we train our deceptive and greedy natures to distinguish between needs and wants?

    1. I believe the word "need" was used as a hypothetical situation in this case- not to be taken literally- more of an illustration.

  2. Kate,
    thanks for the thoughtful comment. I think your absolutely right in that a big problem comes in trying to figure out how we define “need.” The truth is I find that is a hard one to argue or impress on people. I think your right our society default’s to things as needs that really aren’t. I think though we allow individuals to make their own decisions regarding this.
    I find based on what I posted above. That even if the person feels they need a winter coat, a rain coat, a spring and fall jacket, that they probably have plenty of other coats and clothes that they would be honest and say aren’t “needs.” I think that’s where we start. When everyone is giving up to their “needs,” then we can start working on defining needs.
    What’s your thoughts on that?

  3. Ariah,

    I would definitely agree with your response. As I continue to think about the issue, I’m mulling over your thoughts about our tendency to go out and replace what we gave away with newer/nicer things. I’m not sure that we are going on and buying more simply because we got rid of something that we “needed”. Another force that I believe may be at work here is the value that our society places on consumerism. If you think about it, what’s one of our responses to felt emotional needs? To consume! Hence we have the phrases “emotional eating” and “retail therapy”. (I’m not trying to be judgemental. I’ve been guilty of both of these offenses at times.)
    I wonder what phenominal changes would happen if we intentionally changed our emotional response from consuming to giving? Wouldn’t it be great to hear someone say, “I’m having a bad day, I think I need to go give”? I know that for me, no bowl of ice cream or new pair of shoes gives me any type of feeling remotely compared to that of giving… That could be giving something to someone in need or giving of your time to serve someone.

  4. i dont think there is anything wrong with giving away used clothing to clothing drives or goodwill as long as it is still wearable and in style. i am 29 now but when i was about 13 my mom was going through our clothing for a clothing drive, NONE of our clothing was worn out or out of style, just outgrown and we had too much. i had a favorite yellow rubber raincoat that i really liked to wear and i did outgrow it, i didnt want my mom to give it to the clothing drive, but after i found out that it would go to someone who was very less fortunate then me and that he/she might like wearing it as much as i once did and it was better to give it away then it becomeing trash, i was happy to see my raincoat going to the clothing drive so i think that as long as it is wearable and not trash, clothing should be given a second chance

  5. I found this linked from the latest podcast. You make a good point. I’m glad I happened to stumble on this blog of yours through a googling of Dave Ramsey.

  6. If I were a homeless person on the street in freezing weather, I dont think I would be wanting to wait until Americans’ convictions overcame their selfish nature. As much as I am trying to work toward that kind of lifestyle, I am one of the selfish. Even though I buy a lot of my clothing at Goodwill and other thrift stores, I have several coats in my closet. I agree that we should not demean a person by giving them shabby or excessivly” out of style” coats but what else are you going to do with them, throw them away. At least throw them away where the people who need them can still get at them.

    I am planning a coat drive in my neighborhood and will take donations from everyone who is willing to contribute, no matter what they have in the closet and no matter if they are Christians or not. As a person feels led, so they should contribute.

    The idiology you propose is wonderful, but in real life, it will not put one extra coat on a person and will probably get a lot of doors slammed in your face when you ask for the new coat they got for a birthday or Christmas present.

    Living out a conviction that God has placed on your heart is our duty to Him. The conviction God has placed on my heart is to do what I can to help stop people from freezing and to share His word as well, when and where I can.

    I have a wonderful ( I think) idea. Actually, I heard a similar idea used by a family last year to celebrate the first Christmas after a loved ones passing.

    Suggest to all your congregation that they ask their spouse and anyone else who would usually buy them a Christmas present to take the money they would have spent on the present and donate it to a charity or group in need. Instead of a gift under the tree, hang an envelope with a description of the donation and how it was used. A picture of a group of needy children with new gloves and hats or an inner city baseball team with new equipment etc… A picture like that should be worth at least as much as that new ……. your spouse was planning to buy you.

  7. I was in Mississippi over Thanksgiving and caught the tail end of a sermon from a pastor–he was saying that true giving is when you donate something you would like–not necessarily what you don’t want anymore. And I can say that as a person who has collected, gone through and distributed lots of items, clothes, and other things, that sometimes I felt like the people who were contributing were simply taking advantage of an opportunity to clean out their closets and eliminating the “this stuff is of no use to anyone and should be thrown away” stage. Although I know the donors had great intentions and truly did want to help, occasionally I would get a hint of “Well, if they are so needy they’d be happy to have this.” That’s not giving from a conviction–and also sounds like the needy are not supposed to ever want anything decent, just what will handle the immediate necessity.

    But on the other hand, those ripped up, paint spattered, way too “shrunken” jeans can be put to good use. Many of the bigger agencies take these items and have them recycled into cleaning cloths or other items so they are still have use.

    Whatever the motivation, donors are what keep many nonprofits going and I know the our organization, Katrina’s Angels, has been able to help thousands of people from these donations alone. And people that can’t give money, do help a lot with in kind donations.
    This just goes with charity drives —God bless the donors, we couldn’t do it without them. It’s a reason that America is great–this spirit of generosity and reaching out to those in need.

  8. Greg and Lynne,

    Thanks for your comments, both insights help us better understand the ideals and realities that we face on this topic.

    I’m definitly an advocate of making resources available to those who need them, even if they are the leftovers or trash of another group. This article though was very much directed to the folks who fit into the full-closet category.
    We need to start rethinking the way we live.

  9. I volunteer with a couple local churches on Seattle to feed homeless people. We take donations of coats, whether they are old and out of style or not.

    When we set up out little table out there in the park, and we spread out the tarp with the donated clothing and blankets on it, and people wearing filthy ripped clothing with dirty tangled hair swarm around the table (not meaning to be rude, but it is an accurate depiction) it’s pretty obvious that a clean warm coat, be it from the 80’s or brand new from Nordstroms is in fact a lot better than what many of them have.

    The fact is, people need.
    If I give someone a coat that I have had in my closet for 2 years and never really wore because I don’t like it very much, they appreciate it. They don’t know whether or not I wanted that coat or not, and they don’t care.
    If I were to give them my favorite coat, it would most likely be of little use to them. If I were homeless, I would much rather have something ugly, too big, but warm. Quite frankly, our modern jackets with the little fur around the hood and the rhinestones on the back are worthless out in the real cold. If I were homeless, I would select my least favorite coat from my closet. It is old. It is quite unattractive, but it is probably the warmest thing I have.

    If you really want to help someone, go drive around your city, find two or three homeless people, pick them up in your car. Now take them to your house, let them shower in your bathroom. While they are showering, get in your fridge and cook a three course meal. Let them pick out clothes from your closet, while they wash their own in your washing machine. Not set your table with your finest china and sit down and have a good meal with them. After dinner, take them shopping. Buy them all new clothes, a nice new waterproof coat, and groceries for two weeks.

    What? You won’t do that?

    Then don’t complain that nobody will give nice things. Let them at least have a coat and be warm, because they don’t care if you liked the coat or not. Half of them are on drugs or crazy anyways.

  10. Katie and all,

    This conversation is really beautiful, I think. Everyone who’s brought up the practical side of people actually donating nice stuff has had valid points…not gonna happen on widespread basis. So yes, we should gladly take donations from all and be thankful for their contribution. But, to me, there’s one striking difference in someone who chooses to give their good clothing vs. one who hands down the old and buys new. I’ll call it the extra mile principle, and it’s a teaching of Jesus.

    What I find so fascinating about the kingdom of Christ is that he calls his followers to go the extra mile. People do good things all the time, but in this radical kingdom, you see him asking us to give more. Not just the coat, but the shirt too…and that’s even to someone who forcefully is taking the coat! We see a man take a stranger of another country who’s been beaten and left for dead and put him up at the inn, paying for all his expenses. We hear Jesus call us to do exactly what Katie just described…

    “Then Jesus said to his host, “When you give a luncheon or dinner, do not invite your friends, your brothers or relatives, or your rich neighbors; if you do, they may invite you back and so you will be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed.”

    There are lots of people who will do good things for people, and that’s awesome that there is goodness all around. But, to those of you who are Christians, you cannot stop there. You simply must go the extra mile, otherwise Christ’s radical message of love becomes…well, common. Maybe that’s why so many are bored with Jesus. They don’t feel like he offers anything new. But he does.

    Katie, my wife and I did something almost exactly like what you described a few months back, including 2 homeless guys and a meal and shower and change of clothes, and it was an awesome experience. I also know Ariah, and he has in fact done similar things as well. I don’t say that to boast or to invalidate what you were saying, but to actually validate your point…if one makes a statement like Ariah did about giving nice clothes, shouldn’t we take it further? I think so. Thanks, Katie, for the reminder to all of us.

    Oh, and Katie’s exactly right on the old vs. new coats…more important than fashion (which I don’t get anyway) is warmth and durability. Selecting a coat to give with love may not always mean selecting the most current one. I think Ariah’s principle, mainly, was that when we give, we should give the best and not the worst (often, the warmest IS the best).

  11. Well said, Ariah. The other aspect of this, from a systems thinking perspective, is that if you’re buying new and fashionable clothing to replace what you’ve given away, and you’re not aware of where you’re making your new purchase, you might be contributing to their poverty on a macro level. There is much legitimate debate over what a fair and living wage is for certain sectors of the globe, but we can all agree that our ‘first world’ desire for bargains at any price drives ‘third world’ wages down. I’m not saying that we should stop having clothing drives…but we should start asking larger questions too.

  12. Mike,
    Definitely agree with you on that one. That’s why our purchasing decisions need to be thought about on so many more levels then that currently are.

  13. I love that this discussion has had such longevity.

    I agree with you completely, Ariah. One more thought that came to mind as I’ve read through the comments. You alluded to this in your post, but it’s been lost along the way, I think. When we choose to give, there is a lot that happens before it ever becomes about the recipient. First, it’s about us, and our hearts, and what place the Lord has there. If we take the Gospel seriously, and believe that when we give to the least of these we really truly give to Jesus… well, I just don’t think most of us would like to believe that we’d want Jesus to wear our old clothes while we’re hanging on to the new clothes.

    I think if we really lived in a heart-place where we asked the Lord what to do with everything that comes through our hands… we’d find little of it staying there. Enough. But so much more would be released to those who need.

    I’ll be the first to admit that I’m not there. But that’s the direction I’m headed. Thank you, Lord.

  14. wilsonian,

    we definitely all have a long way to go, but I really like your imagery…
    “I just don’t think most of us would like to believe that we’d want Jesus to wear our old clothes while we’re hanging on to the new clothes.”

  15. Is this the Obama website? Good Lord! Does the Bible oblige us to go buy some Armani and donate it to the poor? I’m not saying you have to have homeless people dressing like a rodeo clown, but do you have to go shopping for some new stuff?
    Dude…you seem to spend your entire blogspace finding thnigs the church should be doing differently. To quote Bono…”You can’t throw your arms around the world”
    Jesus told us to take care of the poor and then also said “The Poor will always be around”.
    If all I can afford to do is give last years fashions to the homeless shelter, I’m sure God has NO problem with it. We are commanded to give food and clothing, but it doesn’t say filet and cashmere. You have a good heart bro, but your ideas are more and more socialist and THAT is a direct violation of scripture. Paul lays out the commands that “if a man does not work he should not eat” and “a man who fails to provide for his family is worse than an infidel”. The best way to provoke someone to achieving for themselves is to give them JUST ENOUGH to create opportunity, then let them do it on their own.

  16. This is all very interesting stuff… just to add one more perspective on this that I don’t see represented as much is something I realized when serving abroad in the Peace Corps.

    Leftover clothing from clothes drives, goodwill, etc. goes to Africa to die. Its send over by the boatload in garbage bags. This is then purchased by wholesalers and our “donated” clothing is sold (quite cheaply) to villagers. Ever since, the textile industry (in Kenya) has completely failed b/c they cannot make clothing as affordable as the resold clothing… thus a blow to their economy.

    It’s really all enough to make your head spin 😉

  17. In this very wealthy nation of ours, why must we wait for people to become desperately in need before we give? I do think that people, if they really want to impact the world in a good way, should make the most of the things they have, and keep and use their possessions until they are threadbare. And, when they go shopping for something new for themselves, they should buy the exact same thing for “the stranger among them.” If every were to take on that mentality, there would no longer be a need for clothing drives, because everyone would already be taken care of.

    Sure, it was said that people who do not work do not eat. But the only people who use that verse are those who assume incorrectly that people without are necessarily not working, or are able to work. They judge the poor and homeless from a distance too great to see the reality of the situation. It is a lazy man who will look for excuses to not help others. It was Paul who said that above quote, but it was Jesus who said, “give to all who ask, and turn no one away.” So, who are you going to listen to? Paul, or Jesus?

  18. Ariah,

    I know that several comments have said that they think your ideas are possible or socialistic. But for what it is worth there are many professors at bethel who have done some serious reading, who would agree with you. And through my study of scripture, the christian tradition and my own experience entering into the lives of those who experience homelessness, i 100% agree with your ideas.


  19. Great thoughts, Lori. And thanks for sharing that story. I did not know that about Good Will. It definitely solidifies the need to rethink this donation/clothing drive mentality.

    I wonder if there are other more productive venues through which we could give clothes? I know I've heard of folks needing donations overseas, but coordinating donations with when people take trips is a bit more difficult. That might be a valuable resource…
    Imagine an initiative that connected overseas trips with Good Will's overstock and was able to send folks off with boxes of clothes and shoes. That would be cool.

  20. Hey Ariah –
    I didn't get to read everyone's comments but just thought I'd write a quick note on what I've been thinking about regarding this topic for the last year.

    We took the youth group to the Good Will last spring to do some work. I was absolutely blown away with the system they had set up. They receive so many donations that we went through the boxes and pulled out the best 5% of what was in there, and the rest went to "recycling." It was unbelievable to look at what was saved and what was sent to be grinded up for some recyclable purpose.

    Now: 1. I'm glad they weren't filling up landfills with it. 2. I'm glad that some of it was able to be reused.

    BUT… I think that places like the Good Will or even clothing drives can be enablers to the consumeristic culture that we live in in America. Knowing, "Oh, I can just donate this & it'll be given to someone who is needy" can encourage those who HAVE to continue to have.

    Now, I don't think clothing drives are all bad – and I have a few too many clothes in my closet, some of which I'll be donating sometime real soon – but I think there needs to be greater conversation about the ways many Americans buy buy buy, use use use… and that we shouldn't let ourselves off the hook because "oh, i can donate it."

    Those are my two cents. At least for today.

  21. Two thoughts
    Need is a personal issue. What I consider need is almost always going to be different than what another person sees as need. Thats okay. Your style your look is part of the beautiful mosaic of the human race. The person who fills their life with consumer items, clothing or other, has a need that may – at times – not always (I will not be the judge) that runs deeper than thier need for stuff. Until that deeper need is filled a discussion on thier consumer habits is mute. Help them fill the real need and consumerism is replaced or put into a proper perspective.
    Secondly – a pervasive hang up on anti- consumerism can become an addiction and again focuses on what is really not important. If money is the root of all evil wouldn't that mean that the not spending of money is just as much a negative path as the spending of money? Money only passes through our hands and should not be held onto too tightly, after all – it is not really ours.

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