The first time I organized a collection, I promised college students a pizza party if they gathered the most recyclable cans in their common area. The year was 1992. I didn’t anticipate the creativity of freshmen male students who apparently ransacked all sorts of nearby residential communities. Thankfully, the Residential Director took pity on me and arranged for the maintenance team to help me lug everything out of the dorms.
I vividly remember sitting on the floor of their particular floor, sobbing quietly as I tried to cope with the consequences of success. Two weeks later, the school had recycling bins on every floor in the dorms. So worth it. So much sobbing.
In the mid-1990’s, I was in charge of establishing a food pantry at a community center. We had a pastor volunteer to build the walk in closet. We had no money to buy food. I realized that many of the County’s 84+ churches had their own very very small food closets (sometimes, not even a box.) But most had no staff or even a volunteer who could open the church and get the food. So I contacted all 84 churches and asked them to consider supporting a central food pantry at the Community Center. Each faith community was asked to hold a food drive one time each year. 25 agreed to participate which meant 2 food drives each month. Hurrah! Sustainability. I had a volunteer make up a shopping list with NO CANNED CORN PLEASE in a big font. I was constantly pushing food drives – the community play had one, the schools organized drives, the fraternal societies. The Church of Latter Day Saints took the cake though when they sent a tractor-trailer filled with 50 pound sacks of flour and gallon sized everything.
Success = sustainability, I learned.
I collected gently used blue jeans to make denim patches for survivors of domestic violence. I collected socks. I collected pet food and pet supplies. I collected green newspaper sleeves to use for a poop scooping gig. I stepped up my skills to coordinate toy drives for a foster care agency then moving into clothing drives as well as regular sorting and packing projects with the folks from GLENDA and Pittsburgh Cares. I led diaper drives.
In 2009, I was struck by perhaps the greatest inspiration of my life – to collect gently used tote bags for the food pantries. That led to a five-year odyssey in which the back of my car was seldom empty nor was the back of Ledcat’s car. It was again so successful that I sobbed. A lot. And I shut it down because I couldn’t draw together the folks to create what we needed – sustainability. We collected over 30,000 bags in the formal 20 months the project was in operation – plus thousands of other items like pens, cups, even piggy banks.
This time I was the one filling a very very large truck to send to the Food Bank.
I’ve had some ideas fizzle, of course. The drive to collect gently used DVD’s for the GLCC youth programs (and library) didn’t get very far. I’ve sat at collection events with empty boxes. Even when my car was vandalized and items for the food pantry destroyed, I didn’t get a single donation to offset that loss.
This past winter, I took responsibility for soliciting donations to the GLCC Winter Gear Drive – and six months later, more than 6,000 items were donated. From gloves to hand warmers, from coats to quilts, the LGBTQ community and allies brought that many items to the GLCC to distribute to the community. The GLCC handled distribution and has a partnership with 20+ agencies whom were able to tap into the excess and get into the hands of the community.
That brings me to my latest collection – Cathy’s Closet. I was thrilled by the response to the Winter Gear Drive, but the GLCC had to avoid becoming a defacto thrift store and stop accepting clothing. So I looked at other needs and the dormant idea of collecting personal care items took root. It was something I had noticed in the 1990’s while running an actual food pantry – the need for soap and deodorant and tampons.
But rather than just “organize a collection” I worked with the GLCC to organize a sustainable project. First, we have set out to raise $5,000 to help renovate the space where the items will be stored and distributed – we need bins and labels and some shelves installed and that sort of thing. Raising $5,000 will allow us to be organized ahead of time. That will also give us a substantial cushion to purchase the items we need the most while we work on sustainability.
Sustainability will be driven by the collections. We are looking for community groups to commit to one drive per year, no matter the size. This can be tied to an event (like a picnic) or promoted to staff and their families. It can be expanded to other tenants in your workplace. It can be promoted to your congregation and your members. These are the groups who have made a commitment thus far
- Out 2 Dance (Ladies Fall and Spring Flings)
- iCandy Ladies Dance Party (June)
- Women’s Law Project (June)
- Women & Girls Foundation of Southwestern PA
- PFLAG Pittsburgh (July and November)
- OUTrageous Bingo (May)
- TransPride Pgh
- You can register your collection here (one time only or annual or whatever)
The lessons I’ve learned over the years as to how to run a successful collection include components.
- Planning – consider storage space, distribution process, tracking, and what to do with “outside of the box” donations. This doesn’t have to be super complicated, but it does require some simple guidelines. For example, when clothing is donated that is moldy, stained, torn, soiled, etc – we throw it away. We don’t have the facilities to wash it or the resources to collect it for a textile recycling program. A simple spreadsheet can help with tracking (and thank you letters.)
- Sustainability – inviting people to organize drives on an annual basis is a good step. I email PFLAG Pittsburgh a shopping list of items we more need at that time of the year, they distribute to their members and collect at their monthly meeting. Multiple by 3 or 4 groups and we have enough flowing in to keep things supplied. This distributes the “burden” for donating throughout the community, but still keeps people connected with the people we are serving.
- Telling the Story – people respond to stories about their neighbors. The “Sister Supplies” concept resonates among women who have been caught without product. Nearly every day, I manage to shock someone with the fact that you can’t buy soap or toilet paper with SNAP (food stamps.) Obviously, we have to protect the dignity of our neighbors in need, so finding ways to creatively tell the story is important.
- Asking Relentlessly – reframing the ask can be exhausting, but necessary. I try to stay current on data like the # of donations, any interesting stories from the week, etc. I constantly weave that information into the narrative which is really about poverty in the LGBTQ community.
- Photos – I won’t post a photo of a client for a variety of reasons, so I am equally relentless asking the GLCC staff and volunteers to take photos of volunteers, donors, etc. Donors are often shy, but when told that it inspires other donations, they usually agree. Photos of shelves of product, photos of distribution kits, photos of completed drives, photos help tell this important story about a community caring for our own.
And just in case you missed it, here is the donation button one more time. Your $10 and your friend’s $10 and the $10 that other person chips in gets us to our goal so we can begin distributing items to the community.