From Impoverished to High-Impact Philanthropist, Thrift Store Redefines Charitable Giving

Thrift stores play a vital economic role by selling low-cost household goods; unfortunately the thrift store paradigm is failing many consumers and communities by bad service, high prices, and isolation from market forces.

There is a nonprofit thrift store in the 7,000-population community of Livingston Montana that is redefining philanthropy as well as the business model of charitable second-hand sales. Behind the racks of second hand goods is the largest charitable foundation in a county larger than the state of Delaware. Since opening in October 2005, the Community Closet has given more than $200,000 to local non-profits, community organizations, events and people in need in Park County.

It is now providing nearly $40,000 a year in cash grants, and an additional $5,000 in in-kind contributions. In all, its beneficiaries number more than 100 entities, touching virtually every segment of local society: children, women, seniors, vets, victims of abuse, schools, food pantries, parks, arts and theaters, addicts, the environment and the list goes on.

“We started the store because we were tired of ‘Corporate Thrift,’” says Executive Director Caron Cooper. “We saw the Salvation Army store leave town, the Red Cross store close, and frankly, it just didn’t seem right that they made money off of our community’s inputs when times were good, sent the revenue to HQ, and when times got tough, they folded. We really wanted a store for our community that valued shoppers, providing needed items at very low prices, but also so that any profit would be available for funding nonprofits in our community. From the very beginning the goal was not to maximize profit through prices, but to think about how our goods could be used in our community.“

Community Closet customers play a role in the market for the services they consume. A frequently disenfranchised population, dismissed as “welfare moms” is actually raising money for organizations in the community with their purchase of children’s clothing and household goods.

“We’ve established a positive feedback loop that involves a huge share of community members,” said Cooper. “Instead of the ‘food chain’ approach to thrift, we are establishing a ‘food web’ in our community. And the web includes our customers, volunteers, staff, donors, shoppers, grantees and their donors. It’s really pretty much everyone here.”

In 2008, the Alley Annex opened. “I noticed when we had quarter sales in the thrift store the very poor, who usually asked for vouchers for free clothes, could pay for their family’s merchandise.” What doesn’t sell for a quarter at the Alley Annex goes to free bins, and the cycle starts again. The generated income through quarters broke even, and the number of vouchers requested fell by 70%.

Another addition to the cycle is the Curated Closet, a downtown location that opened in 2011, offering highest-style vintage, western, and name-brand donations in an upscale location.

“We didn’t set out to reinvent the thrift store,“ says Cooper, “but we just kept seeing to opportunities in the marketplace, and brought in all components of our community. A CLASSY Award would give us a chance to showcase our model.”

More About This Charity

Region

West

Category

Hunger and Poverty Relief

Name

Community Closet, Inc.

Mission

Selling donated clothing and housewares and using the proceeds to fund community projects. Where fashion meets philanthropy… the Community Closet.

Impact

  • This Achievement raised $200,000
  • This charity raised $40,000 in the past year
  • This Achievement helped 5,000 people
  • This charity helped 2,000 people in the past year
  • $200,000 in cash donations to local nonprofits, economic development (6 FTEs), 100 tons of unwanted materials converted to $ and jobs

Works In

United States

Learn More

www.communitycloset.com/

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Who’s Involved