Though I’ve donated to Goodwill for years, I’ll admit that shopping at Goodwill became much more appealing after I had kids. The day I bought my young daughter 5 pairs of jeans for $25, I was hooked!

I still make frequent trips to drop off items that my kids have outgrown, so I thought I was pretty familiar with what Goodwill is all about. But a recent visit to their website convinced me to spend a little more time learning about this organization. With all this election talk about job creation, did you know that in 2011 Goodwill helped more than 189,000 people get jobs? In fact, their mission involves “helping people in need reach their full potential through learning and the power of work.” Who knew? I sure didn’t, and I started to wonder if everyone else knows about the good work that Goodwill does in our communities—and how all of this donating and shopping helps them do it.

Kate Fagan, the manager of the Goodwill in Belfast, Maine, agreed to answer my questions about Goodwill so I could share some tips for donating and shopping at Goodwill—and the reasons why you should do both. Ever wonder what you absolutely shouldn’t donate? What bizarre things people buy? What happens to your stuff after you drop it off? She answers all of this and more.

Donating to Goodwill: Why, What, How, and Where

Why donate to Goodwill instead of somewhere else?

Goodwill is a non-profit. Surprisingly, a few other similar chains out there are not. We are also all about recycling. So, although we don’t encourage it, if you do donate something we can’t sell, we often have a way to recycle it or resell it. In fact, our new stores are being built without a dumpster and we’re required to fill out a lot of the same paperwork as your local transfer station.

What kinds of things absolutely shouldn’t be donated?

Mattresses are a big no, no. Also because of the large number of recalls on baby items, we have to refuse most baby items. Cribs and car seats actually have very strict regulations on how or if they can be sold secondhand. Any large kitchen appliances can’t be accepted, as well as building materials. Habitat for Humanity has their own resale stores that accept those.

We would really prefer anything you donate to be sellable. There’s a longer list which is on Goodwill’s website. (And please, if its a couch that has been sitting at your curb for a week in the weather and no one would take it for free, we won’t be able to sell it and we do turn those things away!)

How should I prepare my donations before I bring them in?

If at all possible it would be great if people could wash their clothes and take everything out of the pockets. That’s for your protection, too. Just overall making sure they are clean is ideal. And also safe. All our donations are sorted by human hands. Putting a giant kitchen knife in with clothes could be a very unpleasant and painful surprise for someone.

What happens to my stuff once it’s donated?

As soon as your stuff comes in the door it gets sorted. Sometimes that means that it will be put in a large box with other bags of clothes or boxes of household items to be completely sorted later. Ideally it means that the person who took your donation is going to rip open your bag or box and take everything out and put it into one of our categories. All the clothing gets sorted into men’s, women’s or kid’s boxes or cages. We also have a specific spot for shoes, books, linens, accessories and household goods. All that stuff then goes through our production process which is when someone actually takes the clothes and hangs them and tags them, or prices the other types of item. And then it goes out onto the sales floor for you to sift through and find that long lost treasure!

Where does the money go when my stuff is sold?

All the “profit” from our stores goes to our various programs. We have group homes and rehabilitation services for people who have suffered traumatic brain injuries, we have several programs to help people find a job, we have services for people who are deaf, and a few more programs as well. Goodwill was founded as a funding source for programs; it’s a side benefit that it provides quality items to people who may not otherwise be able to afford them and all those bargain hunters out there!

What’s the deal with the receipt for tax purposes? How does that work, and should I do it?

Just like any charitable donation, your donation to Goodwill can be a tax write-off. So, if you are looking for deductions make sure that you itemize the stuff you bring to us and if the person taking your donation doesn’t ask you if you want a receipt, you can request one. We don’t have the time in our donation area to go through everything with you, that’s why I recommend making an itemized list yourself before bringing your goodies. We also can provide a list of items and the price range we usually put on them. Goodwill always advises those who are donating and want more information to consult a tax professional to make sure you are doing it correctly. Trust me, we are not qualified to give tax advice!

Shopping at Goodwill: Treasure-Hunting Advice

Is there a particular day/time of month/year that’s best to shop? Are things priced the same all the time or are there times with better prices?

We are pricing items from the time the store opens until a short time before it closes. We have goals as to how much product needs to go out in all major categories everyday. Summer is definitely a busier time for us, just because of the weather, but we haven’t seen much of a slow down of donations yet this fall. Really, you could find an amazing deal any day of the week, at any time during the day.

As far as extra discounts, every store in Goodwill Northern New England uses the same sale color every week. The sale color changes each Sunday.

Any other advice for shoppers?

You can buy a discount card. For $10 a year you get 10% off every purchase, with 25% on your birthday. You can buy one at any of our stores, and they work at any of our stores. Keep in mind, though, that if you go to a Goodwill outside our area they’ll probably have a different type of loyalty program.

What’s the most amazing “treasure” or best deal you’ve run across?

This is a tough one because everyone’s version of “treasure” or good deal is different. For me the best deals have been on brand new Carter’s baby clothes for under $3. I’ve seen almost new North Face jackets for $9, I saw a double La-Z-Boy recliner at one Goodwill for $30 once. We’ve gotten in Le Creuset cookware, Ugg boots, KitchenAid mixers, all of which we may price a little higher than our usual, but all of which have been an excellent deal!

And the most bizarre item?

The one that sticks out to me was this horribly ugly, life-size rooster, with a plastic head and feet and its body covered in real rooster feathers. The face was an awful, cartoonish caricature of a rooster face. I was sure we should just trash the thing, but someone convinced me to put it out and it sold within 5 minutes. That and the 2 boxes filled with (ahem) adult toys.

Is my purchase taking away from someone who needs it more than I do?

Our purpose is to sell secondhand goods to raise money for our programs. We certainly also fill the need for people who can’t afford to buy things firsthand, but there is plenty of stuff to go around! Goodwill of Northern New England hasn’t run out of clothing since 1998 and based on the volume of stuff we see every week, we aren’t going to anytime soon!

What things do you think people should know about Goodwill?

The biggest thing I always want to stress to people is that we are a nonprofit. Even if we get the stuff that fills our shelves for free (for the most part), the second someone helps you unload the goods out of your car, our costs start adding up. We pay the same type of rent or mortgages that other businesses do, our electricity costs the same, and we have competitive wages for our employees. We are trying to fund good programs, doing good work throughout Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont. All of us are very proud of that, as well as the environmental impact we are having. We keep hundreds of thousands of pounds of “garbage” out of landfills each year. And that’s just our Goodwill agency. Goodwill is an international organization. Goodwill follows this same model all over the world.

Thank you so much for answering my questions, Kate!

What do you think? Did you know all of this stuff about Goodwill? (I can’t decide which part I like the best: the way their programs help people, the fact that you can find awesome stuff for great prices, or the new life this “trash” gets instead of being dumped in a landfill!) Do you donate and shop there? What are some of the treasures you’ve found?