It's the thought that counts.


Our resolve — not to mention our acting ability — will be tested once again this holiday season, when we receive a gift at a family gathering or office Secret Santa exchange.

We'll have a grin and a gush ready as we tear off the wrapping, open the box and look inside — even if it's a home taxidermy kit or a 2,000-piece jigsaw puzzle of Beyonce's dentist.

Many charities face the same dilemma during the giving season. They get a lot of stuff — including a lot that can't be used. But many charities may be reluctant to speak up, lest they appear ungrateful.

"We don't want our donors to think we're complaining," said Amy Sutton, associate director of Hastings Family Service. "We need people to keep bringing their things."

Most nonprofits have websites that list what they can and cannot use. But too often, people don't check. That means charities have to spend extra time and money disposing of them.

Goodwill probably is too nice to tell you that it doesn't want refrigerators, microwaves or dehumidifiers. So it has a website that tells you.

"Nonprofits like us incur disposal costs for these items that ultimately take funds away from our job training and placement programs," said Melissa Becker, marketing and communication director for Goodwill-Easter Seals Minnesota. "We help connect four people to jobs every day with proceeds from our 51 retail locations."

This holiday season, here are some things charities wish you would stop doing.

Confusing dumping with donating

Looking to get rid of that old couch, baby crib or mattress? Don't bring them to Stone Soup Thrift Store in St. Paul Park.

Or worse, dump them on their loading dock after dark.

Stone Soup and its nonprofit parent, Basic Needs Inc., have served thousands of struggling families and budget-conscious shoppers over the years. They've given away tons of gently-used furniture, clothing and bedding to the less fortunate. But it can't resell child car seats. And nobody wants a moldy old chair.

Board President Vickie Snyder said that it costs them at least $400 a month to have such trash picked up and hauled away. That's money that could be going to help the poor or homeless.

"They give us electronics that are broken, clothes that are filthy dirty," she said. "Don't give us your broken stuff. We don't have the resources to fix them. Vacuum cleaners and kitchen appliances, we have to recycle them through the Environmental Center and that costs us money."

Unacceptable items are listed on their website. But even if the items are on the acceptable list, such as clothing or quilts, they're often too old or soiled to be passed on. And then the staff at Stone Soup has to politely refuse them.

"I can't tell you how many people we offend," Snyder said. "People will say 'gently used' and it has a grease spot and the arms are filthy."

Donating expired food

You aren't doing your local food shelf any favors if you give them that can of kidney beans that has been in the back of your pantry since the Clinton administration.

"It's important that (it) hasn't expired," said Michelle Rageth, director of Friends in Need Food Shelf, in St. Paul Park. "We've actually gotten canned armadillo."

New personal care items such as soap, shampoo or toothpaste are always welcome, she said.

"My first suggestion is to contact the charity and find out what they really need," she said. "Because things change. Sometimes things you think the charities think they need are not the things they actually do need."

Something else folks might not know: most food shelves, Friends in Need included, get most of its food for the hungry by buying it in bulk. They can stretch that $10 much further than the average consumer. Thus, cash is the preferred gift.

"If you gave us that same $10, we can stretch that to a hundred dollars worth of a food," Rageth said.

Not breaking up loads

Sutton said Hastings Family Service can always use food, clothing or household items. But don't put it all in one big, herniating box. If you have trouble lifting it, volunteers will too.

"They think they're doing a good thing by getting these great big yard bags." Sutton said. "If the bags and boxes are too heavy, it's difficult for our volunteers, and most of our volunteers are elderly."

Also, don't leave food donations at their door overnight. They'll go straight into the dumpster.

"We can't risk having critters," Sutton said.

"If a charity is unable to take your things, there is a good reason," she added. "There are some times we have to say no. That might be because we know we can't resell it or we already have 15 of those in the back."

Forgetting that teens need toys, too

Sometimes it seems that tots get all the toys. Teens may no longer believe in Santa Claus, but that doesn't mean they don't want presents under the tree.

"Santa Tina" Altman is president of A Place of Hope Minnesota, which runs Toys for Tots and Teens. Based out of Hope Church in Oakdale, they help families in need living in Washington, Ramsey, Chisago and Dakota counties.

Unlike most Toys for Tots distributors, they also provide gifts for teens aged 15-18. Beginning in November, they take toy orders from nearly 800 registered local families. About 60% of those toys are provided by the Marines. They handed out the gifts Dec. 14 and 15.

However, the Marines only provide toys for teens up to age 14, Altman said, so they often struggle to find gifts for their older brothers or sisters.

Boys and girls 15-18 could use a hoodie, athletic apparel, a handheld electronic game, skateboard or sled.

Forgetting the golden rule

Ashley Post is communications director at non-profit watchdog Charity Navigator. When giving, people should observe the golden rule, she said.

If you aren't going to wear or eat something, why would you expect someone else to?

"We want people to kind of embrace that spirit of goodwill and generosity but consider that on the other side of your donation is a person just like you," Post said. "Just because someone is a little less fortunate doesn't mean they don't want to eat nutritious food."

Woodbury mom Cheryl Jogger helped to create the anti-hunger group SoWashCoCARES. They work with members of the District 833 Community Education Department to deliver clothing and food packs to students who may suffer food insecurity during spring and winter breaks from school.

"(W)hen we ask for 'gently used' items, sometimes the items we get are 'heavily used,'" she said. "This doesn't happen very often but before donating a used item, we ask people to consider whether they would give that item to their own children, before donating it to those in need."

Brian Molohon is executive director of development at the Salvation Army Northern Division, which encompasses Minnesota and North Dakota. Donations are always welcome, he said, but helping people on a more personal level can be inspirational.

"If it's a cause that means something to you, get involved," he said. "Come take a tour. Come get proximate to the people that the organization is servicing. You will know intimately what the real needs are. It's always more than just, 'Hey can I get rid of this and give it to somebody?' It can start there. But come and get to know the people you are trying to help."

Confining giving to the holidays

Many charities who have to turn away volunteers during the holiday season struggle to find them the rest of the year.

"Thanksgiving Day is a really big day people want to come and serve meals," Molohon said. "I love that, but there are 364 other days that the need still exists."

Jogger said hunger doesn't take a holiday.

"We are so grateful for all the generous support we receive for our students, especially at this time of year," she said. "But year-round donations are so helpful, as our needs are spread out throughout the school year and even in the summer."