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There are times when it can really matter that a nonprofit's board and staff step-out to support legislation that supports its mission. When nonprofits sit on the side-lines of political discussion, unlike the AARP or similar member organizations, bad things can result for nonprofits.

Take for example the bins that are used by Salvation Army and Goodwill. These recycling collectors have pretty much defined the industry where folks can donate their goods for cause. Well, the for-profit sector thinks there's may be opportunity here and have set-up competing bins in New York and Philadelphia and elsewhere. The unknowing public, trusting what Salvation Army and Goodwill have established might just presume their "contributions" follow the same path. But, as the following Philadelphia Inquirer article illustrates, not so.

But the point of today's blog: nonprofits don't have to sit by when threats reduce mission effectiveness. The boards and staff can legitimately take action to educate the public and speak actively to their legislators about rules that can support them and the public.
POSTED: Monday, February 16, 2015, 1:07 AM

The clothing donation bin appeared on the North Philadelphia street corner without warning, a metal box caked with bubble-gum pink paint and rust.

Stenciled on the side in small blue letters was this message: "Through your donations we provide money to charities & give employees occupation."

Jay Butler, who owns the adjacent property near Erie Avenue and 21st Street, didn't think much of it. Until the bin filled up, and clothing - along with a mattress, a broken television, and an empty bottle of brandy - littered the sidewalk. He went to the police station.

"They told me that I can get rid of it," Butler said. "Well, what am I going to do with it?"

What he didn't know was that a half-mile away was a nearly identical bin. And another one a block from that. And one about 500 feet from there. And a half-dozen more along nearby Broad Street.

All have appeared within the last six months.

All bear a New Jersey phone number connected not to a charity, but to a for-profit company. That company, Viltex USA, is causing a headache in New York City, where officials are scrambling to push the bins out.

Viltex, it seems, is pushing south and finding a new market in Philadelphia. It's one of several for-profit textile-recycling companies expanding in the city.

"These recyclers are aggressive," said Mark Boyd, president and CEO of Goodwill Industries of Southern New Jersey and Philadelphia. "They are, as far as I'm concerned, taking revenue from Goodwill."

Textile recycling is a nearly billion-dollar worldwide business, industry officials say. Of the clothing discarded in donation bins, much is resold in bulk, often overseas, where used wares are at a premium because consumers can't afford new items. The rest is recycled into wiping rags, carpet padding, even car-door insulation.

Donations left in Goodwill or Salvation Army bins are often sold to fund services such as employment training and alcohol-treatment programs.

Donations left in Viltex's bins? No one really knows.

Viltex's sparse website says the company is a for-profit entity "that works hand in hand" with nonprofits and charities. None are identified by name.

The company's phone number goes to voice mail; Viltex officials could not be reached for comment. Viltex filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in November, saying in court filings that its liabilities were equal to its assets, about $550,000.

Viltex's attorney, David Stevens, did not return a call or e-mail seeking comment.

The company's presence in Philadelphia is unavoidable. A quick drive through the neighborhoods of Nicetown, Logan, Hunting Park, and North Philadelphia turns up scores of blue and pink Viltex bins, many tagged with graffiti and surrounded by trash. Nearly all are in poor areas and set in front of vacant lots.

Councilwoman Cindy Bass, whose district encompasses those neighborhoods, noticed the trend.

"You begin to wonder about the predatory nature of what these bins really are," she said.

This month, she introduced a bill to ban for-profit donation bins and require all bins to be licensed. Separately, Councilman Curtis Jones Jr. last month revived a bill he introduced in 2013 that would require bins to be licensed. (Bass said the two measures would likely be combined.)

Jones and Councilman Bobby Henon, whose districts cover much of Northeast and Northwest Philadelphia, said they had seen an influx of bins, including some installed without the permission of property owners.

Many of those, unlike Viltex's, identify a benefiting charity on the bin. But they operate under a hybrid nonprofit/for-profit model that has come under fire from groups like Goodwill.

For example, several bins operated by A&E Clothing indicate proceeds benefit the Retired Peace Officers, a New Jersey nonprofit. That's true. But the nonprofit gets a flat $25,000 check each year and A&E Clothing keeps the rest, according to Anna Jaruga, an A&E employee.

Boyd, of Goodwill, said most people who throw used clothes into a donation bin assume the charity is the only benefactor. He and Maj. Kevin Schoch, who oversees the local Salvation Army's donation bins, said the influx of for-profit bins was cutting into their donations.

Schoch said the Salvation Army had only 20 bins in the region, but he was looking to add 200 more.

"It's about the visibility," he said. "We, for lack of a better way to say it, need to be competitive."

Others believe there is no need for a rivalry.

More than 80 percent of fabrics end up in a landfill, according to Jackie King, executive director of the Secondary Materials and Recycled Textiles Association, an international trade group for the for-profit sector. For-profit companies are diverting that waste, she said.

King, who has asked Bass to reconsider her legislation, said her association's 160 members all pledge to clearly state their relationship with any charity on each bin.

"It's a matter of making it convenient for people to recycle," King said. "There's plenty of clothing and textiles to go around."

Forcing for-profit bins out of Philadelphia may be easier said than done.

In New York City, where it is illegal to put donation bins on the sidewalk, the city handed out 2,093 citations in fiscal year 2014, up from about 600 the year before. Officials said many companies remove bins within the 30-day warning period, only to drop them elsewhere, restarting the clock.

The City Council there recently passed legislation allowing the Sanitation Department to remove bins immediately.

When Butler asked Philadelphia's Sanitation Department to clean up the mess around the bin at 21st and Erie, he said a crew hauled away the mattress and the television but left the rest. Last week, he contacted Bass' office. On Wednesday, a city crew cleared away the rest of the debris.

But not the bin.

"I'm just a little concerned that it's only going to continue," Butler said. "Until they get rid of this stupid thing."

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