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Not all "Books for Charity" go to charity

Claudine LoMonaco Dec 13, 2011

Kai Ryssdal: Depending on where you live, you might have seen something new in the parking lot at your local grocery store. A big blue bin into which you can put old books as a donation for charity. The bins are in 11 states, from California to Massachusetts.

But the company behind the whole thing turns out to be one of the country’s biggest for-profit book recyclers. Claudine LoMonaco has more from Prescott, Ariz.

Claudine LoMonaco: There was no mistaking the message on the large blue bins. They read “Books for Charity” in bright yellow letters five inches tall.

Richard Cady first saw one in this Safeway supermarket parking lot last year. A volunteer with the Prescott Public Library, Cady went over to get a closer look.

Richard Cady: It said something about helping children to read.

But then he read the small print. It said some of the books would be sold to cover expenses.

Cady: I sort of had a bad feeling about it. It didn’t seem quite right.

It turns out the bins are owned by a for-profit company called Thrift Recycling Management, or TRM. The company does donate some of the books through a charity it helped create called the Reading Tree. But it also sells the books on places like Last year, the company brought in $27 million. The Reading Tree’s website doesn’t mention any of that.

Cady said it felt deceptive.

Cady: The average little old lady who is going grocery shopping at Safeway isn’t going to figure this out. She’s going to think that those books are going to children, and I don’t think that’s always the case.

The bins worry Cady because he helps run Prescott Library’s used bookshop. It raises thousands of dollars for library programs by selling donated books. Like many Friends of Library groups around the country, Cady worries the bins are siphoning off donations that normally would come to them.

The blue bins have also caught the eye of law enforcement.

Tony Green: We’re looking into seeing whether donors were misled in any when they gave books about how much of the proceeds are going to charitable purposes and how much are going to a for-profit company.

That’s Tony Green, from the Oregon State Department of Justice. In May, the department began investigating TRM. TRM’s chief executive Phil McMullin wouldn’t tell me how much of its $27 million in revenue comes from the blue bins. But he said the company donates 25 percent of the books it gets from the bins.

Phil McMullin: Does TRM make money at it? Sure. Are we driving Rolls Royces? No. Are we delighted with the service we’re providing? We are.

He said 50 percent of the books they get from the bins are in such bad shape, they get recycled to keep them out of landfills. Tax documents The Reading Tree filed in 2009 show the group donated more than a million books to charities.

McMullin: There’s nobody in the whole country who gives a million books a year away for free.

I spoke to nearly all the schools and literacy groups in Arizona that TRM says it aided over the last year, about two dozen. And the donations are for real. Ellen Dean runs Books Pals. She says TRM and The Reading Tree helps her group get thousands of high-quality books to kids at poor schools every year.

Ellen Dean: A lot of these children have no books in their house. They may have the telephone book or a bible but it’s not typical that these families have libraries at home, so we help them start that.

McMullin concedes his company needs to refine its message. Thrift Recycling Management has been changing the wording on the bins. The bin in the Prescott Safeway now reads “Donate Books,” but it still doesn’t say some of the books will be sold for profit.

In Prescott, Ariz., I’m Claudine LoMonaco for Marketplace.

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