"Something is better than nothing."
"Those poor people will appreciate whatever we have to give them. "
"One man's junk is another man's treasure."
These sentiments seem to justify something that is an ongoing problem in developing nations, and in ministries. One man's junk is likely still just junk.
When serving in a developing country, or supporting ministries/non-profits, what we do is not only important but also how we do it. I ventured into that conversation a while back with my post about Christian orphanages "How to screw up orphans in the name of Jesus".
There are sacred cows in Christian culture that sometimes need to be examined, evaluated, changed, and sometimes just plain put out of their misery.
Today's sacred cow is the Junk for Jesus train.
After spending time working in Baja with three different ministries, and my husband travelling in the past to both Africa and Haiti, there is one thing that most "missions" seem to have in common. They are on the receiving end of a steady flow of junk. North Baja particularly seems to be the dumping ground for American garbage because of it's close proximity. This problem may be different in other developing countries but I think the "Junk for Jesus" pattern is a common one. It's easier to be "generous" with stuff no one wants or needs.
You might expect that ministries would just turn away unwanted and unneeded stuff but it gets a bit complicated.
-Sometimes the ministry leader/ PR person/ solicitor of donations is very disconnected from the actual needs on the ground and doesn't live in the same country. This leaves those receiving the cases of expired individual coffee creamers a bit frustrated. It could be that the junk train is perpetuated, encouraged, and run by poor leadership and ministries themselves. If that's the case, stop supplying the insanity!
-Some ministries honestly have a hoarding problem. It's true. This isn't the fault of the donors but rather leadership. I have noticed this in a variety of places. This could happen anywhere but seems to be a bigger issue when a leader is of my grandparents generation, or have existed through much leaner times. A sign of a good leader, in my opinion, is someone who cares more about the people they serve than about the stuff they can collect up in store houses. Examples of that generosity are leaders who joyfully cooperate with other ministries, community organizations, schools, locals, churches etc. and are happy to share surplus items with others in the community rather than hoarding them up. I have actually known of situations where a leader would rather throw useful things away, or let food rot, rather than give it to the "competition". I've known leaders who lie to donors about their needs, and who will solicit funds to build more warehouses, and storage rooms to keep more stuff that will never be used never mind distributed. This can even go as far as collecting a parking lot full of dusty ambulances and fire trucks that aren't used, or taken care of, and that cost donors a lot of time and money to transport there. The donors are told that they are "much needed" and because the donors are generous they are willing to make a huge sacrifice to meet the non-existent need. Sometimes "donations" of stuff merely perpetuates theft. You would be amazed at how much donated stuff never ends up where it was intended to go but rather pads the pockets of dishonest people along the way.
-Sometimes there are good leaders on the ground that know the needs well, but who have a hard time telling donors what isn't needed. Donors can be kind of stuck in their ways and easily offended. The Junk for Jesus train is a fast moving one and it's difficult to slow it down and switch tracks. Sometimes it takes time, strong leadership, and gentle education.
Most people want to give because they think they are helping. They want to be helpful and genuinely enjoy giving. Occasionally there are other motives like a tax receipt for "gifts in kind" which means that you get paid for your garbage instead of having to pay to drop off your junk at the dump yourself.
I'm going to assume the first one, addressing those who actually want to be helpful but just aren't sure how.
Here are some handy tips, free of charge. Feel free to take them, leave them, or just plain be offended by them.
1. If you want to help out someone who is serving and working hard in a developing country give money not stuff. There are many exceptions and some items can actually be very needed especially if they can't be found or are very expensive locally. Specific special needs equipment would be one example of that (if requested). Money allows them to buy what they actually need and support the local economy in the process. Supporting local business is so important. If you are going to give "stuff", first find out from someone who knows (not necessarily the off site PR person) what is actually needed. Sometimes even nice, expensive, and useful items just aren't needed...or they already have rooms stacked full of the same item.
2. Learn the difference between stuff that should be recycled, sent to the dump, or donated. I honestly think that people are confused, so please allow me to clarify. That big blue recycling bin in your office is a very useful thing. No one overseas wants your used, outdated, office supplies. Cases full of old invitations are useless. Used paper, scraps of paper, misprints, cases filled with rolls of fax paper, and 30 year old printer paper just take up space. Please throw away your own garbage, it's not nice to hand it to someone else and make them do it for you. When you clean out the deep dark corners of your church basement supply room PLEASE, for the love of all things holy, don't send the stuff you didn't want to someone else who won't want it either.
3. Most ministries use technology, preferably somewhat up to date technology. Accounting, records, newsletters, correspondence are done on computers now. It's more efficient that way. There is little need for you fifty year old accounting books.
3. Knick knacks are of the devil. Just say no. No ministry needs your grandmothers collection of cute little bears, collectable spoons, silk flower arrangements, toilet paper dolls, or disco apples. They are weird, useless, and tacky at home, sending them somewhere else doesn't make them less weird, useless and tacky. Let's start a kitchy crap free revolution.
4. Outdated or broken electronics are useful for one thing only...letting my kids tear them apart to search for copper components to earn enough money to buy a pack of gum. No one in a foreign country wants your English VHS tapes or floppy disks. Please be kind, rewind...your donation box all the way back to your own garbage bin.
5. On behalf of all ministries everywhere I would like to say "No thankyou" to 80 cases of expired cough syrup, hundreds of bottles of expired contact solution (p.s only rich people wear contacts), crates filled with crushed cans with no labels, and food that expired last millennium. It's not useful, it's gross and it can be dangerous. We know that you don't want stuff to go to waste, and that you hope that someone else will be able to use it. We know it gives you a sense of purpose to scour and solicit stores for the stuff they can't sell...but they can't sell it for a reason. Believe me when I say that it will still go to "waste" and will eventually end up at the dump anyway...after time and money has been spent to transport it, and valuable space is used up storing it. Pretty much anything in huge amounts is annoyingly useless. No one needs 500 jars of Pumpkin pie spice, especially in a country where no one eats pumpkin pie. I witness first hand the frustration of hard working missionaries and staff who have so many other important things to do, but must waste endless hours sorting through clutter and junk. It can actually be oppressive and overwhelming.
Also keep in mind that those clothes were likely made in some of these countries that you are sending them back too, and may be cheaply available there. Being 'poor' doesn't eliminate someone's sense of fashion and self respect. Generally speaking no one wants your granny's clothes, unless she was a very stylish granny. Kids who grow up with very little are much less picky when it comes to brands and the latest trends than their American counterparts, but they generally still know about them. They know that skinny jeans, boots, and scarves are in style and that 80's pastel wind suits are not. The boys here still wear their caps with the bill flattened. People want to look nice, and will strive to do so even with "missionary barrel" cast offs. And please, for the love of man, throw away your used nylons in your own garbage can.
7. What language is that? Do not send truck loads of cast off English library books, ancient encyclopedias, and school books to a foreign country that doesn't speak English. It's pointless, and annoying. They will sit on shelves, or in boxes, in a damp cement room for years and years until they are rotted and musty. They will take days and days to sort through and carry to the dump. People doing the dirty work will feel bad for "wasting" all these books that might have actually been enjoyed somewhere else. The same goes for Bible's. If you are going to donate literature (which is actually very useful and appreciated) please find it in the language that people speak and read.
Now that I've given you a virtual slap upside the head, otherwise known as a "brain duster" I want to give you a virtual hug and tell you that its ok. We are all well intentioned but dumb sometimes. Admitting we have a problem is the first step to recovery.
There is hope for me, and there is hope for you. Let's start giving others our best, not our worst. After all, Jesus gave us his best in exchange for our worst.
Here is one way that your old stuff might be helpful:
Hold a garage sale and donate the money.
Put it all out there on the table, the VHS player, the English books, the waffle iron, the hair krimper, and the old granny clothes. Someone might even buy your sweaters to wear to an "ugly sweater" party. You just never know. Take all that cash, change it into a check...or better yet an electronic transfer and send the money to a trusted organization or someone who will be a good steward of it. Easy peasy.