Even Goodwill is hurt by tough times

The pickings are getting slim at one of Tina Partridge's favorite shopping spots, another sign of the country's tough times.

About once a month Partridge and her five children head to the Steele Creek Goodwill retail store, where the young mother can find great deals on everything from school clothes to dirt bikes.

But the slumping economy is taking its toll on selection these days, and that hits parents like Partridge particularly hard.

“With a big family like mine, finding the stuff you need at a good price is a matter of survival,” she said.

Goodwill officials said area donations were down 5 percent for the year, 10 percent over just the past three months.

Meanwhile, the organization has experienced a dramatic increase in demand for its free job-training programs, funded almost entirely from retail store sales.

“It's not surprising, given the economy,” said Bo Hussey, Goodwill spokesman. “People are buying fewer new things and hanging on to their old stuff longer.”

Through September 2007, Goodwill Industries of Southern Piedmont – which covers an 18-county area – received more than 675,000 donations. By the same point this year, it had received about 637,000.

Hussey said the average donation is valued at about $24, so the difference works out to be about $900,000.

“It's down across the mid-Atlantic region, the south and the southwest,” Hussey said. “Some of that has to do with our recent gas shortage, but a lot of it has to do with the economy. Times are tough for everyone.”

The economy also has hit other nonprofits.

The Salvation Army in Charlotte has experienced a 10 to 20 percent drop in donations the past few months and the 29th annual Picnic for the Disabled, a gathering for people with disabilities, was nearly canceled in September until it received last-minute donations.

“It's just a really cautious time right now,” said Maj. Cecil Brogden, of the Salvation Army.

Goodwill, founded in 1902, is one of the country's oldest and largest charitable organizations. Locally, it operates 36 donation centers, including 19 retail stores.

The stores are treasure troves of affordable goods. Khaki pants for $10. Coffee tables for $20.

In the past, lines to donate were long. Storage rooms were packed with excess goods.

But a few months back, donations dropped sharply.

Officials, Hussey said, struggled to fill some stores. That's when Goodwill kicked off its “Donate in '08” campaign, to alert the public to the problem.

The program plays off the election and runs through the end of next week. Officials hope it alerts people to the connection between donations and the job training they pay for.

Hussey said 87 percent of the money earned at retail stores goes toward Goodwill job training and placement programs, which have experienced a 67 percent increase in applicants this year.

Hussey said it costs Goodwill $240 to $2,250 to send a trainee through one of the job programs, some of which last weeks and are led by industry professionals.

“This is important, now more than ever,” Hussey said. “People are lining up to get into our job programs, and I have never seen that before.”