So, you have equipment to donate ...

July 1, 2004
It all starts innocently enough — a telephone call from a dentist who is renovating his office and has "some good equipment to donate to a worthy cause.

Dr. Keith Phillips

It all starts innocently enough — a telephone call from a dentist who is renovating his office and has "some good equipment to donate to a worthy cause. I'm replacing my chairs and just hate to throw them away. They still work perfectly and look good U"

Then reality strikes. Weighing in at 350 pounds each, the 1974 Ritter chairs arrive with stained and worn bright blue vinyl upholstery. The electric cord is severed off cleanly at the base of the chair in such a manner as to require total rewiring prior to any hope of testing the chair. The 30-year-old units arrive as a tangled mass of tubes and connectors challenged in complexity only by the proverbial hopeless tangle of used fishing line wrought by a young child.

In fairness, many well-meaning dentists donate valuable equipment and supplies to free clinics all the time. Many of these clinics could not operate without them. While preparing two chairs and units for shipment to Guatemala, we encountered a Web site — www.mede — that had some wonderful guidelines to consider before sending equipment and supplies to those who are opening or operating free clinics.

Most important, before offering anything to a free clinic, ensure that the items are really useful. Even 10-year-old dental units in good working order may develop problems once they are moved to new locations. This is especially true if the equipment will be used on an irregular basis. Ask your repair technicians if the equipment is suitable for the intended purpose. Technicians know if parts are readily available — a critical issue if the equipment will be shipped out of the United States — and if the equipment is easy to repair. High-tech electronic chairs and units may be more trouble than they are worth in clinic settings.

Then, it is helpful if you take the time to make sure all donated equipment is in good working order before it is donated. Any accessories, components, and manuals that are available are always helpful. Many non-profit organizations operate with so little funding that success or failure may ride on the quality of donated items. Remember — many different volunteers may be using this equipment. Combining unfamiliarity with patched-together equipment is a recipe for disaster. Volunteers frustrated by poorly functioning equipment tend not to volunteer a second time.

Finally, please do not take it personally if the organization cannot use your items. It simply may mean that the particular organization you have contacted does not have a need at that moment for what you have to offer. Storage space is a common issue for many grass-roots organizations, so it is helpful to allow the organization to "pick and choose" among the items available. Obviously, this may create a small problem for the donor in getting rid of items quickly and efficiently, but it is incredibly helpful to the receiving organization who otherwise might have to expend valuable limited resources to dispose of unwanted and often useless items.

Every free clinic needs items you use everyday — composite, amalgam, disposables, gloves, anesthetic, etc. But all too often, the supplies are badly outdated, and in some cases, difficult if not impossible to use. So, if a composite kit is too outdated for you to use, it's too outdated for other doctors as well. Many customs officials require a manifest with expiration dates on products being brought into their country. Expired items are simply not allowed and end up being thrown away.

Many non-profit organizations operate primarily with volunteers and find it difficult to itemize and list every item offered. It is extremely helpful — and expedites getting tax documents to donors — if each individual takes the time to properly document the donation before it is sent to an organization. The following is a guide for this documentation.

• Itemized description of all items in the shipment
• Make and model numbers of all equipment
• Clear contact information on the donor, e.g. phone numbers, address, e-mail address, and fax number are all very useful.

In short, if you have items you believe can be used to provide charitable care, seek out an organization and get involved by not just saying, "Here it is, come and get it if you want it," but rather take the initiative to spend a little time, energy, and money to properly repair, package, and deliver your donation in such a manner as to provide a true service to those in need.

If a man be gracious to strangers, it shows that he is a citizen of the world, and his heart is no island, cut off from other islands, but a continent that joins them. — Francis Bacon.

Dr. Keith Phillips maintains a private practice in Winston-Salem, N.C. He is president and founder of The Giving Hand Foundation, a nonprofit organization committed to the start-up and development of free medical and dental clinics. Dr. Phillips also serves as a teaching associate at the L.D. Pankey Institute, and is a former faculty member of the University of North Carolina School of Dentistry.

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