Best Practices for Handing out Donated Clothes
February 26, 2017 3:22 PM   Subscribe

I would like to get some advice (i.e. reading material) on the best way to manage the distribution of used clothing at a local food bank!

We're a group of enthusiastic individuals who have started to volunteer at a local food bank, which also distributes donated clothes. We're working out of a church hall, that is used for other activities, so the morning of the day that we are there (once a week) we have to unpack all the clothes, dump them on a table, and then repack and store them at the end of the day.

While we can't do anything about the unpacking/packing bit, I would like to propose managing things better so that things are more organized for the recipients, we have a detailed inventory so we have a better picture of what we have and what we need, and that we don't hold onto items for more than a few weeks/months.

One idea that comes to mind is that we:
  • tag each new item we receive and record its details in a spreadsheet (i.e. for a woman/man/boy/girl, size, style, etc.)

  • take a picture of the item

  • print the picture and add it to a "catalogue" along with the details

  • allow people to browse through the catalogue for a more comfortable experience

  • donate non-movers to a textile recyling company

  • I'm wondering if this is a good approach, if this will be a huge effort but worthwhile, or if this will be Sisyphean endeavour.

    Also, I am wondering if there are any publications or organizations that can provide guidance or tips/tricks on starting such a distribution project (similar to the How to Run a Food Pantry published by End Hunger in America)

    thanks for your help!
    posted by bitteroldman to Society & Culture (10 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
    This will be a Sisyphean endeavor.

    I will suggest you get plastic storage bins. Prominently and clearly label each bin with a clothing type and size range. Pull them out, take the lid off, maybe pull the stack of neatly folded clothes out and set on top. Put them back in the box when it is over. Pop the lid back on.

    All you need is a way to quickly communicate size and type of item:

    Women's pants, sizes 14-18
    Women's shirts, sizes small to medium

    People should roughly know what size they are and what kind of thing they need. You can categorize based on what makes the most sense for your clients. This may take a bit of time to parse out and develop good rubrics for.

    So, you may want to separate jeans from sweat pants from slacks. Or you may not. It will depend on how many of each you have, how much those distinctions matter to your clients and so forth.

    I have been a client of a number of different clothing give aways at this type of service. The good ones categorize by clothing type of some sort and size. And that's basically it.
    posted by Michele in California at 3:31 PM on February 26, 2017 [19 favorites]

    I agree that a database sounds like overkill--way more work for the payoff you're going to get.

    If you do want to track how long things have been in your system to allow good weeding, I can tell you what we do at the used book sale I work for. Everything that comes in gets a sticker that is color coded to when it comes in. For us, it's a cycle of four colors, but I'd suggest deciding how long you want things to stay. So if you think six months is the right amount of time, you have six colors. For one month everything that comes in gets a red sticker, the next month everything gets a blue sticker, and so on. When you get to the end of the six, you weed out all the reds (because they're six months old) and then you start using red again on the next months' donations.

    You can do this by season if you want things to linger longer (like if you want to make sure that short sleeved shirts make it all the way to summer if they get donated in winter). We do it by sale; we do three a year. We weed things that have been around for about two years.

    Totally agree with Michele--sort by size/gender/whatever, as granular as you need for the amount of stuff you have. That way you omit weekly sorting. And people won't mind going through things--I know I'd much rather go through a pile of clothes than a list of printed photos.
    posted by gideonfrog at 4:04 PM on February 26, 2017 [4 favorites]

    Anything involving a spreadsheet will die when someone takes over the project who doesn't do spreadsheets. If the stuff turns over frequently you'll be making a lot of work to photograph and catalog items that will be gone in a week. And unless you have information to the contrary, I'd presume based on people in my locality that browsing a catalogue isn't going to be more comfortable than just seeing what's available. That is, if you could make it like a real shopping experience (i.e. stuff on racks, sorted by size and type) then go for it, but otherwise I'd maximize utility.

    I'd keep it more simple. Have each item carry its own information

    - dates (the way thrift stores do color coded tags that match a month or something, so everything with a blue tag is from October)
    - sizes (ish, maybe even S/M/L sections)

    So you could have a color coded tag (month) with a color coded sticker (size). Then it's easy to pull all the older stuff, for example. Depending on the space you have you could also have seasonally appropriate stuff that gets stored and brought out at the right times.

    And then have the tubs also carry some information (i.e. "women's tops" "kid's shoes" the level of granularity will depend on how big an operation this is). See if for smalls (socks, underwear, shorts, baby stuff, mittens) you can have bins with drawers that just have labels that you can bring out and put back just as they are. Saves time.
    posted by jessamyn at 4:04 PM on February 26, 2017 [6 favorites]

    Would you be open to improving the presentation of the items as the clients are browsing? Rummaging through piles of clothing (which will inevitably get very disarranged over the course of a day) on a table seems like a very depressing experience. Bins for the foldable items, some form of collapsible hanging system for items that should hang? This would make it easier for you to sort, too. I think this would work better than a "catalog" for improving client comfort.
    posted by praemunire at 4:25 PM on February 26, 2017 [5 favorites]

    I too wonder about a rolling hanger or clothes line type situation. Clothes can be stored in bins on hangers if need be (in fact that's often how clothing is shipped to stores.) you can find bulk hangers at business supply places and I bet if you appealed to locals people may donate hangers. An actual clothes rack of some kind would be great.

    Your current plan sounds like too much effort and doesn't make it easier to browse. I know when I've had to sort through clothes it's super easy to just look and know if it will fit when looking at it in person or on a hanger. Seeing a photo wouldn't tell me much about sizing.
    posted by Crystalinne at 4:49 PM on February 26, 2017 [2 favorites]

    I don't understand how your idea is meant to work. If someone looked at the printed photos and told you "I want this one" then someone has to go find it. How are they meant to do that? The things must be sorted somehow. So you may as well just do that part.
    posted by AFABulous at 4:52 PM on February 26, 2017 [1 favorite]

    Sorting by kind, then size, then color is how most thrift shops I've been to seem to do it. I agree that rolling racks would be great, if you have the space: that way, instead of a database, you can tell at a glance what your inventory is like.

    Also, if you live in a place with seasons, it seems like some kind of storage will be necessary for your donors and clients to get the most out of the exchange. People get rid of some coats / hats in the spring, and your clients will mostly need them in the winter. Having a place to store these would really help, even if they technically won't have moved for some time.
    posted by batter_my_heart at 5:13 PM on February 26, 2017 [2 favorites]

    Unless this is a much smaller operation than we're assuming (eg everything you have would fit in the trunk of one car) a system that involves handling, labeling, and archiving each item is just not practical. There's a certain maximum number that you can deal with as individual items, and above that count it's about categorizing the library so you have a limited number of groups of things.

    About the catalogue - the only way that would make sense is if the clients have computers of their own, and could know what's there beforehand and come in to look at it, but it's only the very motivated people who need a specific thing and are good at planning ahead who could make use of that system. If that doesn't describe your demographic, then you'll have one computer terminal and a pile of people who stop waiting in line for the computer and just go rummage the clothes instead.

    About the turnover - the way thrift stores handle it is to tag each week's incoming with a particular color tag, then when it's "orange" week, recycle everything in the stash marked orange before putting orange tags on the new stuff and adding to the pile. Sounds like you don't have the pieces individually marked though, so you were going to rely on lists. In lieu of a tagging device with the little plastic tabs to attach a paper, you could do colored sticker dots, a dot of marker (sharpie? washable crayola?) on the garment size tag, stapling a slip of paper to the garment seam or tag... Or if you don't like the color system, just write the date received on a slip of paper and staple that on.
    posted by aimedwander at 8:28 PM on February 26, 2017 [1 favorite]

    I once spent two weeks of my life on secondment to a (very worthy) charity for whom redistributing clothing was their single mission.

    I can tell you from experience that your proposed catalog would 100% be the nicest, most civilised way of distributing this clothing. I can also tell you that it is impossible to achieve without software and some sort of barcode scanning ability.

    I attempted to create what you're looking for by writing an amazing database-style log with very, very clever excel and, as someone pointed out above, no matter how much I fool-proofed it, the moment I handed this workbook over to someone else, it stopped working.

    I would go with the topline categories people are suggesting + a series of plastic bins or racks. Go and watch a street market be taken down at some point - the guys who de-rack and store clothes right on their hangers have stuff to teach you if you'd like to be able to quickly display things each week.
    posted by citands at 5:32 AM on February 27, 2017 [2 favorites]

    Thanks to all of you for your help! You've saved me hours of Excel hair-pulling!
    I will go ahead and research and invest in some bins and racks and hangers! I also like the idea of "time-stamping" the clothes with coloured stickers. That will really make things easy.
    posted by bitteroldman at 6:20 AM on February 27, 2017 [2 favorites]

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