Books for Charity or Scam for Profit?

22 May

Let the Donor Beware!

You’ve probably seen them on a street corner or in a parking lot somewhere. Popping up like big blue mushrooms over the past two years are giant metal bins labelled “Books For Charity.” Unfortunately, the truth about what happens to books dropped in those bins is somewhat more complex than the label.

The bins are operated by Thrift Recycling Management, Inc. (TRM), which also sells books under a variety of names including Reading Tree, Owlbooks.com, and HippoBooks. That’s right: they sell books, the very books that are “donated” into the blue bins. A bit of investigation reveals the fate of the donated books:

  • 51% are pulped and the pulp sold for a profit;
  • 25% are sold online (at very cheap prices) through the various bookseller identities of TRM, with any profits going back to the company;
  • 24% are in fact distributed to a variety of charities, usually literacy- or education-based organizations.

So less than ¼ of the books one donates to the blue bins actually go to charity. Sadly, the charities they do reach are distributed internationally, so only a tiny fraction actually help the communities in which they are collected. TRM is very open about their business model; they make it clear that selecting charities and collecting and distributing books costs money. That makes sense. But TRM turned a $27 million dollar profit in 2010. Most people donating to a “charity” would be aghast to learn this. In fact their business model has led to an investigation of TRM and Reading Tree by the Oregon Dept. of Justice Charitable Activities Section.

The success of the blue bins has a larger consequence for local libraries. Many libraries rely on independent Friends of the Library groups to help fund specific programs or activities. Friends groups rely heavily on donated books to run book sales. When well-meaning people dump books into TRM’s bins, they deprive a key partner of their local libraries of a significant funding stream. TRM is based in Washington, so for those of us in the Pacific Northwest, the bins are much more prevalent right now, leading to a larger crisis for libraries already struggling for funding.

When asked direct questions, TRM is very honest about their business model. Unfortunately, the labels on their bins are much less forthright. As we’ve noted on The Solipsistic Me before, when one donates anything to a “charity” one should be very aware of what that charity actually does. Donors should know what happens to their donations. If you want your old books to make a difference in your community (or more than a 24% difference anywhere), talk to your local library or other local community organizations. Beware the blue bins! Don’t let a little convenience turn your charitable instinct into a corporate profit and a local loss.

P.S. – For more information on the great work done by Friends groups, visit the American Library Association’s website.

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