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How to Pick the Right Thrift Store for All the Stuff That Didn’t Spark Joy

a very neat, tidy bedroom
Image credit: Betta Living. Shared under a Creative Commons license. Click for more information.

Editor’s Note: This is a guest post by Amanda Stewart, an assistant professor of public administration at NC State whose research focuses on nonprofit organizations and foundations.

Netflix’s “Tidying Up with Marie Kondo” and the accompanying best-seller, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, has led to an epidemic of downsizing, as people empty their closets, cabinets and drawers of anything that doesn’t “spark joy.” Many of the discarded items end up at the thrift store. But are those discards going where they can do the most good?

Not all thrift stores operate in the same way, and there are a number of things to consider if you are tidying up and weighing your disposal options.

Does the thrift store serve a charitable purpose?

Thrift stores are often – but not always – nonprofit organizations or an offshoot of a nonprofit. That means many stores are either a means to a charitable end or a charitable end in and of themselves. Nonprofits rely on revenue from a variety of funding sources, and some generate income to support their charity by selling in-kind donations. For example, Habitat Restores accept donated household goods and sell them to generate revenue that supports Habitat for Humanity’s mission.

But not all thrift stores are nonprofit related.

So how can you tell whether a thrift store is connected to a charitable cause?

Look for descriptors of the organization, by-lines in their logo, or look at a thrift store’s website. You may be able to find a description that includes its charitable purpose, or even the word “nonprofit” or “501(c)3” (which is the US Internal Revenue Code for public charities). Another sign the thrift store is related to a nonprofit is if you are offered a donation form to complete when you drop off your goods.

What is the charitable purpose and how is it served by the thrift store?

Next, you can dig a little deeper into what mission the thrift store serves. This could allow you to pick a store that matches your interests. Thrift stores can serve a wide variety of missions, such as medical research, social services, animal welfare, and housing support. Take a look at a thrift store’s webpage, or at the tax form the nonprofit submits annually to the IRS, which is called a 990 form. You can easily find a 990 form with a Google search or by searching here using the nonprofit’s name and location.

Here’s a quick explanation of what you’ll find on the nonprofit’s tax form:

  • On the first page, you will find their mission statement (Part 1, line 1), along with a summary of their staffing (paid staff, Part 1, line 5; volunteer staff, Part 1, line 6). Farther down, you can see how they balanced their books, revenues for the most recent year (Part 1, line 12) to expenses (Part 1, line 18). This can give you an idea of how big the operation is and how it is run.
  • On the second page, you’ll find a summary description of any activities the nonprofit has done that are related to its mission (Part III, line 4a-d). This information will help you understand how the nonprofit carries out its work.
  • The 990 form includes lots of other information about nonprofits, but remember that you’re reading a tax form — so you may quickly get lost in the details! In section VII, you will find information about the leadership of the nonprofit, and in sections VIII & IX, you will find a detailed breakdown of revenues and expenses. For example in section VIII, line 1h, you will find a summary calculation of the total value of goods they received in that year.

Other good sources of a nonprofit’s activities are found on their webpage or by asking staff or volunteers. Typically, nonprofits have annual reports or other materials available that describe their most recent year’s activities – what they accomplished towards their mission and what their budget looked like.

Would you rather donate the cash made if you were to sell your unwanted goods?

Nonprofits of all types welcome cash donations, and unrestricted cash donations are mission critical for many nonprofit organizations. So if you don’t find a thrift store that aligns with your mission interests, consider selling your unwanted goods and donating the cash to the cause you care about. Use outlets such as Craigslist, Ebay, Facebook marketplace, or a yard sale to convert your joy-less items into cash. Supporting a mission you care about might just spark joy.

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