The Mercer Island Thrift Shop is changing its donation guidelines, aligning them with other similar businesses like Goodwill, to accept only items that can be sold in-house or in bulk to other recycle markets.
What seems like a minor tweak to store policy could in fact save the Thrift Shop lots of money. Already, the Thrift Shop contributes about $750,000 annually to the Youth and Family Services (YFS) budget, money that goes toward programs ranging from mental health counseling to drug and alcohol prevention. Youth and Family Services (YFS) Director Cindy Goodwin reports receiving 238 tons of unusable donations each year. Goodwin reports that over the last two years, waste volumes have risen 91 percent.
“There are a lot of generous people who really support the work of YFS,” emphasized Goodwin.
The new policy will require that volunteers greet donations at the car. Volunteers will help unload usable items and then determine the best place to dispose of broken or damaged goods. Donors will then be provided with a tax deductible receipt.
Garbage disposal has been largely free for the Thrift Shop in the past, costing only a nominal fee. But that won’t be the case for much longer. Goodwin said Thrift Shop staff made the decision to modify donation policy when they realized the increase in garbage could drain their revenue if they didn’t find a better model.
“We know this is a big change,” she wrote in an announcement. “Please bear with us — this might be an inconvenience for some of our very local donors. And we are sorry for this. It’s always hard to say ‘no thank you’ to a donation. Staff are grateful for all that is donated, and most of what is received goes to a good use. But the unusable and the unsellable donations have started costing thousands of dollars — money we need for the youth, families and seniors of our community.”
The changes come at a critical time as the Thrift Shop has struggled to retain volunteers. Goodwin said she expects the store will lose many of its summer volunteers — high school students — to the start of the school year.
The city and YFS have already scaled back, then later cancelled plans for a remodel, which would have created a separate drop-off area for donations and improved traffic flow on S.E. 34th Street. It also would have made aesthetic upgrades to the front of the building and added parking and retail space.
“Right now, there’s no consideration of a remodel in the future,” said the director. “It’s partly because as a department, our expenses continue to go up. Our revenues flatline. We knew that would happen because as the city is growing, we’re having to cut certain contracts. We need to be more secure financially, so right now, it’s off the table.”
The city spent money on a traffic study in November and then postponed the project soon after. Last August it was estimated at $1.7 million, which would have been financed largely by bonds.
But Goodwin assured the Thrift Shop has made progress in securing volunteers, which are critical to its operations. By pairing up with groups like Rotary Club, it’s been able to fill scheduling gaps.
Among the items the Thrift Shop will no longer accept are damaged furniture, mattresses, box springs and cribs; electronics that don’t work, stationary exercise equipment, old textbooks, paint and chemicals. The full list and information about alternate recycling outlets, is available at www.mercergov.org.