Do or Don’t Donate


    If donating items makes certain shoppers in a thrift store uncomfortable, what's a donor to do? By creating a situation in which other people are humiliated, is the person truly doing good? How can this kind of thing be accomplished without causing acute embarrassment? Miriam's Advice Well provides some help by turning to Maimonides.

    Dear Miriam,

    I recently moved out of my apartment and had a lot of pots, pans, small electrical appliances, etc., all in good shape, and I wanted to donate them to people who could use them. Since I don't have a car, I schlepped stuff in a suitcase with wheels to a nearby thrift shop (twice!). The people who run the store were very happy with the things I brought. However, each of the times I dropped things off, a similar thing happened: A customer (a different woman each time) walked in and then immediately walked out of the store without buying anything as soon as she saw me. I didn't do or say anything in particular to provoke this kind of response. I was wondering if she was humiliated by the situation, in which it's obvious that a woman like me is donating stuff, while she was there to buy things. If that's the response this kind of donation provokes, then am I doing good by creating a situation in which I'm humiliating other people? How can I donate my things without causing this kind of situation?

    Thank you,
    Do or Don't Donate

    Dear Donate,

    On Maimonides' ladder of tzedakah (charity), completely anonymous giving is on one of the top rungs. Just below that is giving where you (the donor) knows who's benefiting, but the recipient doesn't know your identity, and right below that is where you know who's benefiting, but the recipient doesn't know who you are. After your experience, this hierarchy makes sense, right? If you don't know who's giving to you, it's hard to be embarrased in their presence. If you don't know who you're giving to, it's hard to question whether or not you might be creating a humiliating situation for someone else.

    This ladder is a useful thought tool, but it also doesn't need to dictate all of your charitable choices. You were moving out of your apartment, and you needed somewhere to bring your stuff. Bringing donations to a local thrift shop is a very practical solution to your own needs, and someone's use of those items could be considered a fringe benefit to your being able to move out unburdened. Since thrift stores are also frequented by college students, hipsters and the like, even bringing things there isn't necessarily a guarantee that you're helping people in true financial need as opposed to those who prefer to take their chances on second hand goods in exchange for cheaper prices.

    When people go to a thrift store, regardless of their level of need, on some level, they know that the items there have been donated by other people who don't need them anymore. It's possible that the people who left after seeing you may not have any other options for acquiring household items or clothes, but I don't think it's unreasonable for a potential customer to expect to encounter someone making a donation. That doesn't mean that the customers don't have a right to feel something bordering on humiliation and since, thankfully, I've never been in that situation, I can't pretend to know what they might be going through. Still, the pathway that goods take in and out of such stores is pretty transparent.

     In the best case scenario, tzedakah would benefit the recipient with no negative effects, and giving would be so positive an experience that the donor would want to do so again and again. When you think about structuring all of your tzedakah for an entire year (check out my New Year's post for more on that), Maimonides' ladder could guide how you choose to give, but in a case like this, I would say you did the right thing.

    Be well,