Did you make it? Charitable greed sparks year-end rush

New Year’s Eve is that magical time in the financial year when we Americans become incredibly charitable, in part because we are a little greedy.

Call it the Goodwill Effect. Or maybe the Salvation Army Effect. It’s when we rush to give before the end of the year so we can take income tax deductions on our next filing.

Nearly 100,000 north Georgians drop off stuff at local Goodwills between Christmas and New Year’s Eve. And on the final day itself, the number of donors is more than quadruple that of a typical day. Some sites have police officers to keep donors moving through drop-off lanes.

Isn’t it beautiful when self-interest collides with societal interest?

I suspect Americans would be pretty generous even without the tax breaks. But money makes a difference. A researcher found that wealthy people donated more when tax rates were higher and, thus, deductions more valuable. And a couple years ago big nonprofits howled that ideas for putting new caps on charitable deductions would slice into donations.

But more than cash donations, I’m fascinated by giveaways of clothes, books, rocking chairs, stuffed Tasmanian Devils, old fans, weight benches, high heels and, of course, countless vases.

I wonder how things would change if we didn’t have the nudge of tax deductions and a year-end deadline to finally propel us to clean out our closets. Those hoarding shows on TV would have even more material to work with.

I sometimes think about that when I load up my car with giant bags and boxes of everything I have but don’t want (well, except for the 1980s era pants I tell my wife I might wear again and the stack of books I might read and the extra bathroom faucet set I might install one day).

Ornaments and outgrown clothes

Lauren Turner, of Jefferson, Ga., idled her van in the drop-off line at a Goodwill in north Gwinnett County on New Year’s Eve morning. She had boxes of old Christmas ornaments and four stuffed bags of clothes her boys had outgrown.

Her timing was tied to the tax deduction. But she had a hankering to give anyway.

“I hate garage selling, for one thing,” she told me. Donating the stuff “is good for the community. I hate to throw it away.”

Workers swarmed to unload vehicles, filling tractor trailers used to temporarily store the end-of-the-year bounty until there’s more time to process it.

Each person who pulls up gets a receipt showing they donated, but not what they dropped off or what it’s worth. That’s between the IRS and donors (and maybe their priests). Buzz kill: the IRS says “clothing and household items donated to charity generally must be in good used condition or better to be tax-deductible.”

By the way, the proceeds help Goodwill provide job training services for thousands of Georgians who get jobs each year, most of them with employers other than Goodwill, according to the nonprofit.

Long before there was a Craigslist to bring together givers and takers of stuff, there were places like Goodwill and Salvation Army and thrift shops.

They are the great unloading docks of America, the transfer point for garage sale leftovers, or the wares of garage sales planned but never gotten around to. It’s where the forces of supply and demand are rebalanced.

Kind of magical

I consider it kind of magical how our leftovers come in the side door at my local Goodwill and, after 24 hours of sorting and pricing, slip onto the store’s selling shelves – with eager shoppers eyeing rolling racks of clothes before workers have even unloaded them.

I know: some thrift stores reek of clothes that have endured a hard, sweaty, smoky lifestyle. But the Goodwill near my house is much more palatable.

It’s where I found my best, most outrageous Hawaiian shirt and pristine button-downs from quality brands that I’m too frugal (i.e. cheap) to buy new.

Thrift shops are where good and bad fashion trends come to die or get plucked up for a second life from cool fashionistas who see the wow in things the rest of us were too uncool to appreciate.

Of course, plenty of donated stuff isn’t good enough to make it onto store shelves.

“Well over half” ends up for sale in the stores, and most of the rest is sold for recycling or salvage, Goodwill spokeswoman Elaine Armstrong said.

Doesn’t Goodwill get stuck with a big fat trash bill?

“I wouldn’t call it a big, fat trash bill,” Armstrong told me with impeccable politeness. “We are going to extract as much as we can from that donation.”

See, we all have the same goal. What a nice way to start the new year.

Matt Kempner’s email: mkempner@ajc.com Follow him on Twitter: @MattKempner and Facebook: AJC Unofficial Business columnist Matt Kempner ( https://www.facebook.com/mattkempnercolumnist )

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