Managing the Generous Donation of Goods

By Kathleen Maclay, Red Cross volunteer

Every disaster seems to generate an avalanche of goods donations from the public, thanks to heart-wrenching appeals and visuals of people fleeing their homes with next to nothing.  But can there be too much of a good thing?


Diapers, water, socks, tents, teddy bears and vintage clothes dropped off at official or perceived collection sites stack up at front doors and spill over on sidewalks. Those assigned to organize and oversee this kind of tangible assistance appreciate the generosity while simultaneously feeling the strain. But doing good can be hard.

It takes time and money to store, sort, clean and distribute donated items, which diverts limited time and resources away from providing food, shelter, medical care and emotional support. Storing donated items can also result in thousands of dollars in warehousing, cleaning, transportation and handling fees.

When the Mendocino Complex Fire broke out July 27, the Red Cross opened shelters as part of the emergency response plans we had developed with the County and State, working in tandem with partners and community groups. As part of a recent change in Red Cross policy, goods donations were accepted at Red Cross Mendocino Complex shelters except for home-cooked food, soiled clothing, and a few other unsuitable items. Unfortunately, we did have a couple of instances where donations of goods were turned away from our shelters because a volunteer may not have been aware of the policy change, and we apologize for the miscommunication and inconvenience. We are working to ensure this confusion does not happen again.

Partners and community leaders like Catholic Charities and Lake County Department of Social Services were at our shelters to stage and make the donated items available to shelter clients and then transfer items not selected by shelter residents to community groups that will provide access to disaster clients to the items depending on individual needs.

The Middletown thrift shop operated by Hospice Services of Lake County is another group helping to manage the goods donations.

Manager Yvonne Kronin said the two-person shop on Calistoga Highway has been “inundated” with both donations and patrons looking for free goods due to the Mendocino Complex Fire, which shut down the main Lake County Hospice shop in Lakeport when an evacuation order was levied for that community.

On Monday, July 30, she said the small second-hand store handed out $500 worth of merchandise for free. Kronin, a resident of nearby Hidden Valley, said some visitors reported being told by Red Cross representatives – incorrectly – that they could retrieve as much as they wanted/needed from the shop.

“They’re still coming,” she said.

That led to posting of a sign clarifying a four-item per person limit every day for free goods from the front porch. (The shop is closed on Sundays.) A shelter wristband or other identification links to evacuation areas are required.

It’s challenging to process all donations efficiently with some much pouring in every day and only a small staff, but Kronin and assistant Bruce Ebbinger advise that labeling the dropped off materials as for fire evacuees can help them move those items to the shop’s front porch.

While donations are welcome, but some – such as winter coats that recently arrived might be better received in December. “They’re cleaning their house,” said Kronin about some of the donors. “We open a bag and it’s a surprise.”

Kronin continued: “It’s hard in a disaster. It’s just chaos.”

On the other hand, a Clear Lake Oaks family came to the store looking for help. They picked up diapers, toothbrushes, cat food and directions to a nearby Red Cross shelter for other assistance.  It takes a village.