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Some charities see good news and bad in the economy

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Customer Dorothy Hughes of rural Bemidji buys a few odds and ends at the Goodwill Store in downtown Bemidji. Goodwill stores across the state are seeing more customers and revenue, but donations are down.
MPR Photo/Tom Robertson

Shopping at a Goodwill store is like discovering a really great rummage sale. There are racks and racks of second-hand clothing and shoes, books, electronics, furniture, knick-knacks -- you name it. And all at bargain prices. This store in Bemidji is bustling with shoppers.

At the checkout counter, rural Bemidji resident Dorothy Hughes is buying a few odds and ends, including some stuffed animals for her grandkids. Hughes says she comes here looking for bargains.

Melanie Mathisen
Bemidji Goodwill store manager Melanie Mathisen says she's seeing a lot of new faces in the store as economic times get tough.
MPR Photo/Tom Robertson

"I even did this before the economy got bad," said Hughes. "That's what you do, you save money. I even go to other second-hand stores, too, and I buy sheets and everything, you know. I buy my towels in here and stuff, too."

Goodwill stores across the state are seeing an increase in shoppers -- and revenue. That means more money for the organization's programs, which focus on job training for the disadvantaged.  The sales boom is driven by the dismal economy. 

Bemidji store manager Melanie Mathisen says if there's a stigma associated with shopping at second-hand stores, that stigma is fading as times get tough. 

"We're seeing a lot of new faces in the store," said Mathisen. "There's a lot more people that are coming in that didn't come in before, and they're looking for those great deals. They're looking for ways to hold onto their pocketbooks a little bit tighter."

Goodwill shoppers
More people are looking for bargains at Goodwill stores across Minnesota. Revenues are up for the organization, but donations are dwindling.
MPR Photo/Tom Robertson

Okay, so that's the good news. The bad news for Goodwill Industries is that donations to its stores are way down. 

The shelves are mostly full, for now. But Mathisen says with more shoppers coming in, it could mean trouble down the road if there's a prolonged recession.

"If the donations really slow down too far, then that does hurt," she said. "Obviously, we need donations to run the stores, all of our stores, and without them we cannot supply our customers with what they're looking for."

The story is the same across town at Bemidji's Restore, where manager Steve Strasser is testing a recently donated clothes dryer. 

The Restore is one of six in the state operated by Habitat For Humanity. It sells used appliances and furniture, and all sorts of construction supplies. There are rows and rows of doors and windows, cases of shingles, kitchen and bathroom sinks, and stacks of lumber.

Steve Strasser
Steve Strasser manages the Bemidji Restore, a fundraising arm of Habitat for Humanity. The Restore sells appliances, furniture, and a variety of construction materials. October was one of the best sales months ever for the store, but Strasser says he has to work harder to find donations to keep shelves full.
MPR Photo/Tom Robertson

October was one of the Restore's best sales months ever. Used appliances are the hottest sellers.  

Steve Strasser says these days people are reluctant to buy new ones, so they're looking for bargains.  

But donations are slipping. They're way down from local building supply stores, which typically pass on their surplus material. Strasser says with an ongoing construction slump, he has to work harder to keep shelves stocked. He worries things will get worse.

"Everything will impact us," Strasser said. "It may bring us to the point of donations starting to dry up from local citizens. I think that goes for any place that is basically run on a donation basis. There are those who give and there are those who need, and people kind of want to hang onto what they've got."

Charity organizations are in a critical period right now. About 40 percent of all giving occurs between Thanksgiving and Christmas. 

Charities Review Council of Minnesota director Rich Cowles says it's too early to tell how charities faired through the economic turmoil of 2008. 

"There aren't hard numbers yet, but it appears that giving is just generally down," Cowles said. "My thought about this is just that people are retrenching and kind of waiting, because we don't really know where the bottom is, and so it's tough to be generous when you're not sure."

A recent study at Indiana University shows that giving typically declines in periods of recession. The study found one exception, though. Charities like food shelves and others that serve the most critical human needs actually see donations go up slightly during recessions.