Best practices for food bank/charity donations and volunteering?
December 11, 2017 3:23 PM   Subscribe

Obviously things vary by location and organization: YANMLFBA (you are not my local food bank administrator). But it's mid-December, and here in the US I'm probably not the only person thinking about donations, volunteering etc. I figure there are probably MeFites who know things that will help people who want to be helpful.

For example, I have a bunch of unopened vitamins. Are food banks likely to take them? What about the 12 boxes of hibiscus tea I bought by accident and don't really like? What kinds of things do food banks get too much of? Too little of? I've heard sanitary supplies are useful -- should they go to food banks, or shelters? I already have an automatic monthly donation to my neighborhood food bank, should I just up the amount this month, rather than buying things and dropping them off?

And what about volunteering? Presumably, as with churches and gyms, there's a surge a few times a year and a big dropoff at others. But this is also the time of year some people have more free time to volunteer. Are there organizations that people don't know to volunteer for around the holidays?

Also interested in hearing about ways to find good charities -- Charity Navigator is a start, but falls short at locating places that take toy donations for children in the Bay Area, for example.
posted by mrmurbles to Society & Culture (9 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Definitely give extra money instead of increasing your donation of items. They can stretch a dollar farther than you can at retail, and the labor to sort unsolicited items is...sometimes tough to wrangle.

Feel free to earmark funds for sanitary supplies if that moves you. LA has a diaper bank, the Bay Area might as well. They also always need money for diapers and other supplies.

This is not a good time of year to foist your volunteer hours on a goodbye bank. They are overwhelmed with need and the time it takes to train a new person to do an hours worth ofnwork often means cleaning up after that person for twenty minutes fixing what they...did.

Volunteer in February and make a commitment to stick with it for a full year, even if it’s only 5 hours a month stuffing envelopes or sorting donated goods. I’ve done the sorting. It’s a good way to see what many people consider charity, and how humiliating receiving charity can be. (Opened packages, weevils, dangerously dented cans, it’s like some folks just clean out their cabinet and drop off whatever they don’t want to eat....)
posted by bilabial at 3:34 PM on December 11, 2017 [8 favorites]

(exact policies will vary from place to place; this my experience as a former food pantry manager coordinator, volunteer manager, non-profit admin):

Regarding the vitamins: food banks, pantries, and shelters likely take them; also ditto with the tea. They'll usually take nearly any food* that they have room for (pantries - places that directly distribute the food to those in need often have limited space, especially freezer/fridge), isn't spoiled, and doesn't have alcohol in it.

Things that food banks generally get too much of:
bread (we've turned it away numerous times honestly) and fresh fruits and vegetables that are about to go bad.

Things that they don't get enough of:
coffee (no whole bean, people don't have the time/capability to grind), also instant is a-ok.
cereal - it's common but usually pantries can't keep enough of it in stock.
toiletries (tooth paste, toilet paper, tampons, razors, paper towels, ). The non-food items are especially valuable because they can't be bought on SNAP and some grocery stores, convenient stores, pharmacies that do carry these items have them at a higher margin/markup (imho, some neighborhoods have have more access to cheap versions of these items thanks to the proliferation of dollar tree, dollar general, etc so this has gotten better; but still these items are in need).
cheese (it was like moon rock at my pantry)

I know a lot of people have free time around the holidays or that it works for their schedule but as a former manager who also wrangled volunteers; it's immensely more valuable for me if you'd volunteer on a regular basis for 1 hour for 8 weeks than to volunteer one day for 8 hours at a place. Personally, I think you'd also get a lot more out of it and have a better understanding of what the system looks like by doing so. Hell, I've had to turn down volunteers because a random corporation wants to send 20 (often wayyy tooo many at many places) as a team-building exercise and to give back to the community.

Most organizations that manage volunteers at any time of the year will have enough at this point.

Regarding ; if you happen to have a huge surplus of something already around the house, don't feel bad about donating it all; but cash is usually just as good because pantries can buy in bulk what they need (

RE: finding good charities: you can check out a non-profit's 990 at propublica to see how much they're spending on administration and how much on direct service. Now, it's hard to judge though, sometimes good staff does cost $; If they're spending >20% on fundraising that's a red-flag. note that some on the ground the pantries that have really small operations won't even be on charity navigator or have a 990, because 990s require a minimum level of revenue.
posted by fizzix at 4:14 PM on December 11, 2017 [5 favorites]

If you really have no time to volunteer at other times of year (February is typically good, so is mid-summer when lots of families have less/no support from schools, so is September when new school supplies are prioritized and schedules get crazy), use your free time now to promote and gather monetary donations to your local food banks and other charities. By tapping into your contacts who wouldn't otherwise think of it and giving that to the people who have experience utilizing that money you're going be a lot more effective. A lot of organizations will have ways to help you raise funds for them and make it easier if you just contact and ask.
posted by Mizu at 4:59 PM on December 11, 2017 [4 favorites]

Best answer: I previously worked as a food pantry administrator serving several thousand people.
We would gladly take your vitamins and tea. We would leave these out on a table for people to select if they were interested, as an add-on to their standard food bags.
+1 to your donation of money going further - we could buy in bulk and fill in whatever we needed at the time. We could also get bulk pricing because we bought by the case.
Diapers (baby AND adult), baby food, and baby formula were always in huge demand. We never had enough.
If you are strongly motivated to donate food:
Cereal, dried milk (access to refrigeration was unreliable for some folks), juice, canned pasta/ravioli/chili, and peanut butter were all popular. People were less fond of the canned vegetables and wou
If your bank/pantry has access to refrigeration, cheese slices and meat are cherished items.
Donating your spare items from the pantry is always welcome, as long as it's something you would consider eating. :)
We had a dedicated group of ~15 core volunteers. Visiting volunteers usually helped us to pack bags. We only needed 2 or 3 people per day at most for this task. Once we got to know a volunteer better, they would be asked to help sort and organize - an endless task.
Whatever you choose to do, your food bank will be grateful for your efforts!
posted by QryHavoq at 5:13 PM on December 11, 2017 [10 favorites]

it's common but usually pantries can't keep enough of it in stock.
toiletries (tooth paste, toilet paper, tampons, razors, paper towels, ). The non-food items are especially valuable because they can't be bought on SNAP

To piggyback on this ask, do food banks tend to accept condoms (new in box, still in shrinkwrap)? My partner switched to an IUD and we still have a box or two that are good but not needed in my foreseeable future.
posted by Candleman at 6:42 PM on December 11, 2017

Nthing give money or time. Don't clean out your closets and call it charity.
posted by Miko at 6:34 AM on December 12, 2017

Sorry, that was needlessly cranky. Glad that people who know about food bank work are responding that there is some use for some things people accumulate.
posted by Miko at 6:42 AM on December 12, 2017

There are some charities that have extra spaces for volunteering at this time of year-- it's hard to say which ones, so it'd be worth calling around in your area to find out. The hours are also likely to be different. The children's charity I volunteer for had extra volunteer times from Thanksgiving through the end of this week, including nights which aren't usually an option, but then they close down completely for the rest of December. I know the food bank puts out a call for extra volunteers for New year's day (new volunteers fine) for doing a basic inventory (weigh all food for the records). A lot of places have some sort of giving tree or other way to help families celebrate Christmas.

If you're looking for local suggestions, are you in the Bay area or somewhere else?
posted by Margalo Epps at 1:41 PM on December 12, 2017 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: I'm in the East Bay -- West Oakland, specifically -- and very open to suggestions, thanks!

I currently give money to the Oakland Food Pantry, but would love to hear about other orgs, particularly ones focused on helping the homeless, children, the elderly, and local families.
posted by mrmurbles at 3:12 PM on December 12, 2017

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