published Monday, April 21st, 2014

Proliferation of out-of-town donation bins has Chattanooga nonprofits up in arms

Teen Challenge and other donation boxes are located in the Gunbarrel Road Lowe's parking lot.
Teen Challenge and other donation boxes are located in the Gunbarrel Road Lowe's parking lot.
Photo by Dan Henry.
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    John Thomas picks up donated items for Teen Challenge on Wednesday from a drop-off box located in the Gunbarrel Road Lowe's parking lot.
    Photo by Dan Henry.
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Roger Helle is frustrated.

He believes out-of-state organizations are cutting into Teen Challenge of the Mid-South's territory. And worse, that most Chattanoogans don't even know it.

Helle is executive director of Teen Challenge, a Chattanooga faith-based organization that partially funds itself by collecting used items and selling them at wholesale prices to America's Thrift Store. Helle estimates revenue from the sales to be around 15 to 18 percent of Teen Challenge's budget.

So he is wary when that income is threatened. Right now that's a particular concern because of recycle/resale donation bins cropping up around Chattanooga that benefit causes with few or no local roots.

One such group is Gaia Movement USA, a Chicago-based nonprofit that collects and resells shoes and clothes to fund environmental education and conservancy, specifically aiding projects in Africa, India and South America.

Gaia Movement, like a handful of other nonlocal groups, in recent months has put out donation bins around Chattanooga, in some cases butting right up against Teen Challenge's.

"They're just about everywhere you look," said Helle.

What's wrong with that? asks Marianne Thomsen, a Gaia Movement spokeswoman.

"What we do benefits the world, including Chattanooga," she said in an email. "I doubt we are taking away from the donations of local organizations. But why can people not be allowed to prefer to donate to us?"

Helle said some people don't prefer to give to Gaia Movement but are duped by their bin placement and what he says is unclear messaging.

"What a lot of people don't realize is these are not going to the local community," he said. "All of us have seen a decline in the amount of charity because people think they are giving to a local charity and they are not."

But Thomsen replies, "We think it is good to understand the world as our local community, and there might be many other people who think that way also in Chattanooga."

Britt Beemer said this conflict isn't a surprise.

He is the founder and chairman of America's Retail Group, a consumer research organization. Beemer has followed the rise of the thrift-store industry as an increasing number of Americans go secondhand because of lean economic times.

Beemer said that right now, 16 to 18 percent of American consumers shop at thrift stores. That's a jump from pre-recession times, he said, when only about 12 to 14 percent did so.

The increase hasn't gone unnoticed in the corporate world.

"What's happened is somebody in retail said, 'There's an opportunity here,' and they were ready to jump on it," said Beemer.

The result is more thrift stores -- and competition -- than in the past. That can feed feuds such as the one brewing in Chattanooga between local and nonlocal organizations trying to win the same community of givers.

"It can become a battle, because obviously there's only so much being donated," said Beemer.

Not knowing what else to do, local nonprofits have turned to the law. In the state legislative session just ended, a bill aimed at addressing the problem of "unattended donation bins" -- House Bill 1130 -- stalled in the House after making it to the Consumer and Human Resources Subcommittee.

The bill would have required all donation bins to have proper identification and contact information clearly marked. Since it failed to pass before the Legislature adjourned, sponsor Brenda Gilmore, D-Nashville, will have to try again next session.

Meanwhile, Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke and Hamilton County Mayor Jim Coppinger met in March with local nonprofit leaders to hear their input on nonlocal donation bins.

"If they're taking [donations] out of the community and using it for profit, it does bother me," Coppinger said later. "I don't think that's the intent of the people that are giving."

"Citizens are giving to others out of the goodness of their heart," Berke said in a statement. "They should not be deceived in that donation."

Both mayors said they would be willing to work with reputable local groups in looking at legislation that could place tighter parameters on donation bins.

But as much as it may help local groups, legislation may invite the ire of nonlocal charities.

"It is absolutely not fair to crack down on donation bins," said Thomsen. "I would even say it is un-American. It would be the same to crack down on Burger King in order to protect McDonald's."

Helle disagrees.

"I don't quite see it the same as cracking down, supporting Burger King over McDonald's," he said.

"We're just talking about people understanding who it is that they're giving to, whether it's local or not local, profit or not-for-profit, and they get permission. That kind of sums up what I think all of us really think would help level the playing field."

Contact staff writer Alex Green at agreen@timesfree press.com or 423-757-6480.

about Alex Green...

Alex Green joined the Times Free Press staff full-time in January 2014 after completing the paper's six-month, general assignment reporter internship. Alex grew up in Dayton, Tenn., which is also where he studied journalism at Bryan College. He graduated from Rhea County High School in 2008. During college, Alex covered the city of Graysville and the town of Spring City for The Herald-News. As editor-in-chief of Bryan College's student news group, Triangle, Alex reported on ...

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