I enjoy the virtuous little endorphin rush that comes with contributing stuff to Goodwill. And the blue donation bin in my Uptown neighborhood—about the size of a curbside moving pod—makes it so simple, so convenient. But to my chagrin, I’ve watched on two recent occasions as thieves climbed into it and disgorged the contents onto the sidewalk.
And on both occasions, as the looters clambered out of the bin like clowns from a tiny circus car and methodically sorted through the rummage to identify the most valuable items, I was irate. I wanted that stuff to go to someone in need. But then it occurred to me: Is it really stealing after we discard such items for charitable intent? What right do I have to be upset?
Goodwill communications manager Katherine Boury is confident that such thefts don’t happen very often. “It’s pretty minor,” she says, although unless a lock is broken it’s hard to know exactly how often stuff gets pilfered. That said, the 30 unattended boxes spread out around Puget Sound provide only about 1 percent of Goodwill donations.
Still: Are we helping people or not with our (stolen) donations? And does it even matter whom we intend to help? Michael Blake, UW professor of philosophy, public policy, and governance, says it does. “Even if those people who are doing the stealing are genuinely needy and are exactly the people that Goodwill might have wanted to help, that doesn’t make their actions right.”
So no, donors aren’t wrong to feel their good deed has been thwarted—unless, Blake cautions, we use that deed to selfishly validate our sense of virtue—but ultimately it’s Goodwill that has been harmed. Because the value of our trust in Goodwill—or any charity—is worth far more than some old sneakers and VHS tapes.
Donors “trust Goodwill to use those items to make a difference—whether that difference is through giving them to people or through selling them for a profit,” Blake says. “When people steal from Goodwill, they’re frustrating the decisions of those people who donate.”
Next time I’ll drive my rummage up to Ballard.