Long before I was a personal stylist for women, I was hosting clothing swaps. Now that I volunteer to run styling workshops for homeless youth each month to benefit YouthCare, a Seattle-based nonprofit that supports young adults experiencing homelessness, I am especially dependent on clothing swaps. Why? Because my generous clients host swaps and any pieces that don't head home with an attendee are donated to YouthCare to be used in our styling workshops.
Over time, I've had an array of folks ask me how to organize a successful swap that is delightful for attendees and also benefits the community. Luckily, I live for these types of questions. So below you'll find my 10 steps to organizing your very own clothing swap for charity. It's long, but it has a level of detail that ensures you will throw the swap of a lifetime. And, hey, before we started, thanks for even considering doing this. It will be fun and have an incredible impact on people in our community. I already like you.
10 Steps to Hosting a Clothing Swap for Charity
1. Choose an organization.
The first step toward a successful swap is to choose an organization that will benefit from your donations. Look for organizations that have a need for the type of clothing you expect at your swap. Will the attendees be professional or more casual, for instance?
Every organization has different needs and donating items that a nonprofit has no use for may actually create more work for the staff that distracts from the organization's mission. We all want to help. So, do your best to make sure that what you are doing is actually going to be helpful. Check the organization's website for a list of "wanted items" and consider calling to ensure that a large quantity of clothes can be accepted. A few key questions to ask: What are the hours of drop off and do they fit with your schedule? What other items are needed? (ex: toiletries, menswear, accessories, shoes, etc.) Is there a staff person who would like to come by to talk about the organization? Are there items that the organization will not accept?
2. Select your date/time and location.
Personally, I'm a big fan of weekend brunch swaps or holding a swap on a Friday night right after work. Think about your guests and what works for them. Of course, you can hold a swap anywhere. In an ideal world you'll have at least three areas for clothes, a place or two for folks who want to try pieces on in private and a space for food. Clothing racks are super helpful (and can be rented at a very low rate), but they aren't essential. The fewer racks you have, the more table space you'll need. Common areas of condo buildings work well, as do individual houses or apartments and any event space.
3. Send out a clear invitation.
Most people haven't been to a clothing swap and the people who have likely haven't been to a swap to benefit a charitable organization. So, your guests are counting on you to explain what's happening. Trust me, the clearer you are from the beginning, the happier everyone will be. I think electronic invitations that track RSVPs are the easiest way to go (ex: evite or punchbowl) but do what works for you. You'll want to include the standard event information (date, location, start and end time). Additionally, give the guest an understanding of what is happening and why. I like to introduce the organization and provide relevant hyperlinks for folks who want more details. Then, I explain the benefits to the attendee: new clothes, the opportunity to clean out your closets, taxable donation slips from the organization. Follow this with the benefits to the organization. A very important component is to be clear about what you do and don't want guests to bring. This is a sensitive subject, so use your most charming voice. I let folks know that they should bring pieces that they love but no longer work for them. Perhaps the items don't fit or aren't appropriate for their lifestyle. I encourage folks to use this litmus test: If you wouldn't be proud to hold it up to the room and champion the piece, please don't bring it. This is not a time to throw out all your old tees. In my case, these pieces are intended for youth to wear to work or job interviews. Remember your original intention.
Now, clearly, your needs will vary depending on the organization's needs. This is why you check in first, so you know exactly what you are asking for. Attendees will inevitably ask if they can bring X, Y, or Z. Good communication with the organization means you'll know the answer.
If you'd like guests to bring food or beverages, make sure to include that in the messaging. Also, if hangers or extra bags are helpful, let folks know. You might also want to ask a friend to take photos during the event.
4. Send a reminder.
Reiterate the information from your invitation.
5. Set up & execution.
You are welcome to organize your space however you see fit. Over time you will undoubtedly tweak this model. This is what works for me. Feel free to use it as a guide.
Plan for a room (or area) for each size. XS/S, M, L/XL. I also put accessories and shoes in the same room as L/XL. This approach makes attendees feel more comfortable about going into the L/XL room. Consider renting foldable chrome clothing racks. (Usually a large rack can be rented for under $20 at the very most.) Place a clothing rack and/or flat surface to use to display clothes. Beds, couches, coffee tables, dining room tables, desks, etc. all work well. You want to avoid putting clothing on the floor. I've seen clothes hung from curtain rods or hooks in the ceiling. Other clients have created a clothing line indoors and hung pieces over it. You can get a temporary shower curtain bar and hang it in a doorway. Try to pay attention to presentation to make the space more inviting. Every room should have a full length mirror, if possible. Ask specific friends to bring mirrors to ensure you have enough. Stand the mirror on a crate or shoebox and lean it against the wall to make sure guests can see their entire look in the mirror. I like to invite a guest or two to come early and help set up. Set up your food and refreshments in a totally different space from the clothing.
Finally, place empty shopping bags (if you have any) near the front door and designate a "safe zone" for items that guests found and want to keep. This ensures that another guest does not accidentally walk away with someone's new favorite item.
As each guest arrives, welcome him/her and give her the lay of the land. Ask her to distribute her clothes in the appropriate places. She should hang her own clothes on hangers on the racks and/or fold them and lay them in the appropriate area according to size. This is vital. If you attempt to distribute clothes for people, you'll have a bottleneck and never complete the task. This also ensures guests take ownership over the pieces they brought and gives each guest an opportunity to start "shopping" immediately.
Let each guest know that she does not need to wait! Part of the joy of arriving early or on time is having first crack at the inventory. I like to let guests eat and drink throughout the process. (Mimosas are a favorite.) Shop, eat, visit and repeat at their desired pace. Make sure each guest knows where the designated safe zone is located to ensure her haul won't be tampered with.
6. Sharing the why.
Any excuse to get together with friends is a welcome one. And, free clothes are also always a win. But, if your goal is to hold a swap that benefits a specific organization, take this rare opportunity to share more about this nonprofit that you are so passionate about. A two minute personal speech, thanking attendees for coming and sharing why you care about this cause can have an enormous long term impact for the organization. Think about your audience. Are flyers helpful? A speaker from the organization? A short video? Or are your words enough? Go with your gut.
I've discovered that swaps are a great touchpoint for nonprofits trying to get the word out about their missions and a nonthreatening environment for folks to learn about great work in the community. It's common for a few attendees to ultimately become volunteers, donors or guests at luncheons simply from attending a swap.
Offer a sign in sheet so that attendees can receive thank yous from you and/ or the organization as well as documentation for their tax deductible clothing donations.
7. Packing up.
Offer a last call for anyone who wants to take additional items. Then, it's time to wrap this whole thing up. I'm always surprised at how many attendees jump in to help clean up. Pack up the clothing in disposable bags. There's no need to keep them organized, just put them in bags. Determine if the organization needs the hangers and/or if folks are willing to donate those. Package up any additional items such as toiletries, accessories, etc. If you've rented clothing racks, you'll need to deliver those to the rental location. This is also a great time to take a photo of the group with all of the bags to be donated and share on social media. People LOVE this. Tag friends and the organization. Most nonprofits will happily share the photo, too. You can also include it in your thank you email to attendees.
8. Deliver the donations.
Ensure that you have a plan for getting the donations to the organization. A swap of six or so attendees can provide a car load of donations. 10 or more will likely fill two SUVs with clothing. Consider asking another attendee ahead of time to help with delivery. Again, you'll be surprised at how many people would love the opportunity to drop off the pieces. After all, that's when you really feel the impact of your giving.
This is arguably as important as holding the swap in the first place. Make sure that you have a streamlined plan in place to get thank yous out to your attendees. An email is just fine. If you started with an evite or punchbowl invitation, you can easily reply to all attendees. If you send an email, include a link to photos from the event. Personally, I adore thank you cards. Mail is my friend. But, keep in mind the amount of time it takes to write a thank you card for each attendee. I like to pre-print my cards on the computer and sign them personally.
Also, take a photo of the sign in sheet and email it to the organization. Your point person can send tax documentation and thank you notifications from the organization. If the nonprofit you are supporting would like to add attendees to that organization's email list, you must ask guests first and have them give permission on the sign in sheet. Remember to thank the organization for the support, especially if one employee or volunteer has been assisting you with logistics or attends the swap.
10. Moving on.
I can't tell you how magical it is to be in a styling session with a youth experiencing homelessness and have her come out of the dressing room with an outfit that lights her up. Or a young man rocking his very first suit or tie. It's amazing. And it's obvious how much each piece will undoubtedly give more confidence to someone who really needs an extra helping hand. It's delightful to recognize pieces from swaps and be able to report back to the original owner the impact she had on someone else in a very real way by offering up something that is no longer of use to her. It's amazing. So, if you have the opportunity to remind guests of their impact after the swap, please do.
And, expect that your friends will immediately start saving items for next year's swap.....