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In a city with as much abundance as there is need, a tiny Manhattan nonprofit aims to reallocate the excess – one cookie, one blender, and one bike helmet at a time.
Over the past four years, House of Good Deeds has funneled more than 150,000 pounds of clothes, household items, computers, catering equipment, and more from donors to recipients – keeping it out of landfills. Unlike organizations with concrete goals – disaster relief, ending homelessness, promoting literacy – this shoestring operation has a more profound purpose: fostering altruism.
“Our overarching mission is to show people how easy it is to help others,” says co-founder and executive director Leon Feingold. His model puts free donations directly into the hands of people who need them, rather than to charities that primarily sell the merchandise and use the proceeds to fund their work. While New York has plenty of places that take donations, House of Good Deeds offers something its brethren don’t (and that anyone decluttering values): quick disposition. This is especially useful in a city where most charities request drop-offs, few folks have cars, and people generally ditch usable but unwanted articles on the sidewalk for lack of storage.
WHY WE WROTE THIS
The House of Good Deeds collects items and gives them directly to end users – a pay-it-forward charity model that cuts waste and expenses.
Most days find Mr. Feingold picking up goods across the city, sometimes within hours of a query about pickup. The only stipulation: Things have to work – clothes usable and appliances operable.
“If it’s something you can give to a friend without getting the stink eye in return, it’s probably safe to donate to us,” he says.
The group, which runs two formal monthly events, dramatically ramped up during the pandemic when many charities were pulling back or closing. The marquee affair is a massive yard sale-type giveaway in donated space with just about anything you could get at the mall.
Its pop-ups – either a blood drive, food or clothing giveaway, neighborhood cleanup, annual bicycle helmet giveaway, or other ad hoc event – appear around the city’s five boroughs. Mr. Feingold and his handful of volunteers deliver food to homebound people, stock community fridges, and help fill food pantries. They also field requests from new parents, people recently released from prison, and others with specific asks. The group’s Instagram page connects donors of large items to recipients.
The monthly giveaways attract hundreds of retirees, young families, and singles. They browse well-organized stations stocked with housewares, clothing and shoes, electronics, cleaning supplies, toiletries, and leftover inventory from shuttered retail stores. Attendees are surprised everything is free, says Tracy McAllister, who has received and donated items, and volunteers each month.
Ms. McAllister discovered House of Good Deeds at a pop-up in May 2020 when she was unemployed. She picked up clothes, shoes, bedding, and housewares. Since then, the group has provided her with an Apple desktop and air fryer, shirts and new sneakers for her young sons, and a used microwave for her mother.
“I love how they take care of people,” Ms. McAllister says.
At the July giveaway, 300 people lined up around the block in Chinatown and were admitted 20 at a time, due to COVID-19 restrictions. Everyone was masked and had 20 minutes to fill their empty shopping bags and pushcarts. Some browsed; others made a beeline for specific sections. Most left with their arms full. By day’s end, about 70% of the inventory was gone, which organizers say is typical of a good day.
About halfway through the event, Claudia and Julio Sobral arrived with bags and two suitcases of housewares and clothes. Helping their daughter clean out her studio, they didn’t want to leave things on the curb.
After seeing the operation, Ms. Sobral said, “There’s an element of dignity [here]. People … feel like they’re shopping as opposed to digging in bags on sidewalks.” While groups like the Salvation Army and Goodwill Industries International also help people, she says they are businesses “employing people, and the public has an opportunity to buy secondhand goods. All great.” But, she says, House of Good Deeds gives its clients options for which money is not an obstacle.
Forgoing pay for the value of altruism
A former professional baseball player, lawyer, and real estate agent who grew up middle class in Long Island, Mr. Feingold is the driving force behind House of Good Deeds. He says he takes no salary and stays afloat on donated goods, Pandemic Unemployment Assistance, and Medicaid.
He says he works 80-hour weeks training and finding volunteers, fundraising, paying bills, repairing vehicles, running social media, and schlepping donations – occasionally to individuals, mostly to central locations until they can be donated. Recent donations have ranged from a 200-pound ice cream maker to a pair of men’s khakis.
Many of his 12 core volunteers have paying jobs, so most of the operation falls on him. He acknowledges he, too, could get a paying job but feels this work is more important.
“Do we really need another real estate broker? Do we really need another lawyer?” he asks. “I’d like to think, and honestly believe, that there is more value in what House of Good Deeds does than in a dozen real estate brokers or lawyers.”
Founded by “paying it forward”
Mr. Feingold and his late wife, Yuanyuan Wang-Feingold, founded House of Good Deeds in 2017. They were inspired by personal tragedy and the goodness of others. Within a week of getting engaged in 2016, Ms. Wang was diagnosed with a terminal illness. Mr. Feingold turned to his Facebook clan for assistance. One person helped get the uninsured Ms. Wang medical help. Others donated $30,000 for care and expenses. One of Mr. Feingold’s Facebook friends from 15 years earlier, a wedding planner, organized a 300-person ceremony in a week. Everything was donated – the venue, ice, band, bouquets, food.
“People we knew and people we didn’t supported us in ways we didn’t know we needed,” he says. “That kind of fortune happened because each of them cared enough to make it happen.”
When the couple exchanged vows, they pledged to pay things forward. The first giveaway was of Ms. Wang-Feingold’s belongings after she died in 2017.
Fast-forward four years: Mr. Feingold needs 1,500 to 3,000 square feet of permanent space for storage and monthly giveaways. He’s talking to city officials, private businesses, commercial real estate companies, civic and religious organizations, and philanthropists about a gratis location. The group’s Chinatown locale was donated by Asian Americans for Equality, but now the group again needs the space for its own programs. House of Good Deeds’ $25,000 annual budget – from donations – covers fuel, insurance, and some storage but won’t dent Manhattan rent rates.
Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer says House of Good Deeds makes a huge contribution but that finding a free, permanent new home is a tall order.
Despite the uncertainty about where his operation will end up, Mr. Feingold still collects offerings, confident something will hit. One donor, Jackie Tian, manager of the Levain Bakery on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, gives Mr. Feingold unsold pastries to pass along weekly. She likes her unsold $4.50 scone-sized cookies going to good use.
“Leon has no hidden agenda. He helps everybody,” she says. “When someone donated a couch for our staff room and we needed to get it moved, Leon volunteered.” She adds, “Otherwise, we’d have had to have gotten a U-Haul. It’s like ‘what does he get out of it?’ Nothing, except that he wants to help people. … He says, ‘Just pay it forward.’”