Managing unsolicited donations presents challenges for Red Cross

By Ellis Levinson

Unsolicited Donations

There is a secret storeroom lurking in Santa Rosa. Its contents are as inexplicable and bizarre as any collection of hodgepodge the American Red Cross has ever known. It has nothing to do with Halloween. And we don’t want the stuff. The challenge is to have it go out the door more quickly than it comes in. In other words: “Help!”

The place goes by the catchy name of the Unsolicited Donations Management warehouse. But you can call it the UDM. (After all, why should it be exempt from Red Cross acronymania?)

A lot of folks want to help the Red Cross help those people whose possessions were destroyed by the Northern California wildfires this month. So they drop stuff off at our shelters and offices. And we do mean “stuff.” Not only are we not staffed and organized to distribute donated goods, what on earth could we possibly do with things like …

  • A well-used surfboard (really, Dude?)
  • A case of K-Y Jelly
  • A box full of hoodies bearing the message “I Love Boobies” (made for a breast cancer awareness campaign)
  • Canine life vests (maybe more useful for flooding disasters)
  • A case of opiate urine testing kits
  • Several cases of canned food whose “best by” date was in 2011
  • Several partially used jars of jam

“As fast as it comes in the door it goes out,” said Deputy Lead UDM manager Korri Faria, who, in real life, is the Red Cross disaster program manager for Western Maryland.

Why do people donate this mishmash of who-knows-what? The UDM workers consensus is that some donors are clearing out their garages. But don’t misunderstand; lots of usable and well-intentioned donations come across the loading dock too: baby wipes, brooms and brushes; pens, pencils and pajamas; toys, T-shirts, and toothbrushes.

But as Korri put it: “A dollar goes a lot farther as a donation.” So the Red Cross works with local partners like Goodwill, Catholic Charities and churches, as well as animal shelters and food pantries, to ensure the useable items get to those who need them. And how’s this for matching a solution to a problem? Goodwill is taking a lot of the useful merchandise to sell and in exchange giving the Red Cross $325,000 in $25 vouchers for distribution to those in need.

Upshot: When a donor has something of value, take it to an agency that can use it directly. And please, no surfboards.


 Beth Eurotas and Jim Burns provided editorial support for this story.