The Complex Issue Of Hackspace Donations

More than one member of the Hackaday team has significant involvement in a hackspace, as member, director, or even founder. We talk about hackspaces quite rarely on these pages though, not because we don’t have anything to say on the matter but because even when we write in general terms our fellow members invariably think it’s all about them rather than the hackspace world at large.

For once I’m going to break the silence, and not only talk about hackspaces, but talk about my own hackspace in specific terms. Because, fellow Oxford Hackspace members, this isn’t about you personally though I’m using our home to illustrate a point. The topic is a thorny issue that must affect all spaces, that of donations of physical items. People want to help their hackspace, they have a pile of what they consider to be good stuff, and when they’re having a clear-out they make a donation. But, as we all know, “one man’s trash is another man’s treasure” and vice-versa.

Someone else's MakerBot Cupcake. Baminnick [CC BY-SA 3.0]
Someone else’s MakerBot Cupcake. Baminnick [CC BY-SA 3.0]
As a space, we’ve received a lot of donations over the years, and for various different reasons. Since we’re in a university city, we’ve been the recipient of more than one item formerly used in a laboratory, but we’ve also taken in things donated from the estate of someone deceased, and of course we’ve received a huge amount of stuff from members.

Some of the items have limited use, but are appreciated as curios. For example, the MakerBot Cupcake 3D printer (more of a permanent loan from a member than a donation) is a fully functional 3D printer, but as a comprehensively outdated machine with a relatively tiny print bed and rather poor software support it’s not a machine that sees much use. But it’s a talking point, and serves as a good illustration of progress in 3D printing. And it plays the Imperial March much more loudly than other printers when you hook it up to that software that plays music on 3D printer stepper motors.

Other donations have proven extremely useful, and enable all members of the space to work on their projects. The mass of beautiful tools we received after the death of a member’s elderly relative who had spent a lifetime scratch-building model railways for example, or the sewing machines that allow us to have multiple projects under way at once in our textile room. These are the donations that take our space forward, and make it a better place.

Russian capacitors in an impressive box of donated components.
Russian capacitors in an impressive box of donated components.

A lot of our donations are good things that have a use, but might not necessarily find that use. For example, boxes of surplus electronic components, a box of low-powered lasers and optical parts, the various conference badge boards and random other electronic assemblies that have found their way into our electronics stock, or one of our largest donations, a set of interactive whiteboards from a school that was undergoing refurbishment. It was in a discussion of this last item that we found the issue that prompted the line of thought that led to this piece, because in some ways we have a problem.

All hackspaces have a junk pile of some sort. Somewhere in which items of tech or maker significance are put when it’s time to get rid of them. Some spaces have a rigidly organised timing system, in which items move from a “3 months” bin, to a “2 months” bin, to a “1 month” bin, to eventual disposal. In our case in Oxford it’s still a little more anarchic, we have a bin that gets gone through and emptied from time to time. We’ll no doubt adopt something more robust as we grow.

It’s easy to get rid of a piece of junk. This motherboard is dead, it gets thrown in the junk bin. Someone robs it of a socket or a magnetic while it’s there, eventually it gets disposed of. But when the item that’s been cluttering up the space is a donation, things get a little more difficult. It’s tied to a person, a fellow member, and if you throw it out then feelings will be inevitably hurt. In the herding-cats environment of a typical hackspace management then it’s more likely that the item will be left to gather dust. Someone else’s problem, deal with it another day.

The largest pointing devices you could wish for.
The largest pointing devices you could wish for.

Not a problem if it’s a small box of bits, but not all donations are so convenient. Take those interactive whiteboards I mentioned. They’re something close to a huge wall-mounted trackpad, originally used with a ceiling-mounted projector. You can hook them up to a computer USB or traditional serial port and use them as a mouse. Awesome! you say, think of the things you could do with one of them! But the reality is that nobody has done anything with them in the couple of years that we’ve had them, and they take up rather a lot of space.Eventually they’ll become a sore point, and there will no doubt be the need for some extremely delicate diplomacy so soothe ruffled feathers as we decide their fate.

Every hackspace seems to pass through an uncannily similar set of experiences in its gestation from group of like minds meeting in a pub, into large and well equipped space with huge membership. We’re probably at the mid-sized stage now, having been going a few years and with a healthy membership count with room for improvement. We’ve then reached the stage of learning about how to handle donations, and no doubt as time goes by we’ll be a bit more careful about what we take on board. Or maybe, just maybe, we’ll find a use for those interactive whiteboards!

Does your space have an issue with donations? How did you deal with it?

[Jenny List] is a director of Oxford Hackspace.

Thanks to [Jamie] for the idea.

74 thoughts on “The Complex Issue Of Hackspace Donations

  1. Hey Jenny

    Great starting point for a good conversation.

    I’m not a member of a hackspace, but I have donated things on more than one occasion. I do, however, always check first. Usually with the line “this is going in the bin unless it’s of use to you”.

    Which brings me to my point. It may be that you’re considering the feelings of other people just a little too much. ;) Take those white boards as an example. (Obviously, I don’t know *how* they were donated so could be way off base here). That school likely had to dispose of them. WEEE regulations mean that it would have cost the school money to dispose of them, or they could simply donate them to a local hackspace. You may, without realising it, have done the school a favour by taking them. Now it’s your problem to dispose of them.

    Organisation a way to dispose of hackspace space wasters is good. But maybe the solution is organisation how donations arrive there in the first place. “We’ve been offered a turbo encabulator, how do we feel about that? Would we use it?”.


  2. This reminds me of a silent auction fundraiser one of my relatives held (really an inefficient way to raise money by the way). People donated stuff to sell at the auction, but they stayed attached and wanted to set the minimum bid unreasonably high. Many items didn’t sell at all because the giver valued the item more than any prospective buyer would.

    1. Oh, don’t get me started on silent auctions… My kids’ school PTO does one every year where each class has parents donate to some themed package that goes on auction. So, maybe it’s a “fishing” theme and people donate fishing rods, tackle, hats, whatever… They usually start with a decent price but almost never does the selling price reach what the class has invested in the package. If all those parents had just donated cash to the PTO they could have come out much better off. :'(

      1. Practically ALL school fundraisers FTMFL … $5 ingredients cake to sell for $2 at a bake sale…. a dollar worth of chocolate bar that sells for $3 and the school makes 25 cents on, super scammy direct from china shit catalogues with 5000% markup that they make a couple of pennies a sale. Schools are relentlessly exploited by “fundraising” organisations, seriously seems like if you’ve got a product failing in the real world, turn it into school fundraising. Parents complain about this crap and it gets deflected back as “Don’t you want your kids to participate and learn value of money…” “YES DAMN SURE I want them to learn that, which is why I am forbidding them taking part, here’s $5 which is more than you’ll make off both of them.”

        1. For two years my kids’ elementary school did a “No Fundraising Fundraiser”, where they just asked parents to donate money. It was a really good idea that made things a lot easier on us parents.

          They didn’t do it again this year. I don’t really know why.

      2. Exactly, you can’t just buy a bunch of stuff at retail prices, throw in a basket, then expect someone else to pay more for it than you did. It’s one thing if you use skills to make something more valuable than the pieces you started with, but that very rarely is the case.

  3. Perhaps a biannual rummage sale or auction for “timed out” equipment? Let the donator know at donation that it’s a possibility if you can’t find a use that it may be given new life at a sale.
    Students, home schoolers(in the case of the white boards) or even scrappers would likely be interested and the proceeds can go back into the space.

  4. Just my $0.02,
    The Smithsonian Institution has a special law provided for it by Congress.
    Once something is donated to them, they can do whatever they want with it.
    People may donate an item of significant value to the Smithsonian and make a legal representative of the Institution sign a contract that the item will never be sold or disposed of… And after the representative signs the contract, they can exit the donor’s house and be on the phone with a potential buyer within minutes.

    Not that it applies to any hack(er)space, but a make(r)space could have such a written stipulation required before receiving any further donations. A loan on the other hand, could have a written stipulation that says in effect. If we feel the loaned item is no longer a benefit to us, we will notify you that you have 30 days to remove it, or we will dispose of it in whatever way we deem.

      1. You want butt hurt?

        Try finding a CPU you LOANED to someone in the parts bin of your professor’s office, the professor unwilling to give it back, and the ‘friend’ in question unwilling to request it back since it wasn’t theirs to give.

        Ahh some of the people you don’t dump as friends who you should have years earlier than they did you…

  5. Wow!! I have been following HaD since *almost* the beginning and I can’t believe that a HaD writer lives so close, I feel like a celebrity just moved in next door! Haha (I’m an EE from Abingdon) . I remember reading about the hackspace years ago but was away at uni at the time and forgot all about it! I have something I really want to build at the moment actually (doesn’t involve a whiteboard though I’m afraid :( )so I shall have to come down and say Hi! Anyway, for such a long term fan this is my first post so I should probably say great work guys, I check this site religiously and regardless of what the naysayers say it is by far the best of its kind, there is always something interesting to read and on the whole the quality of the articles is very good. Keep up the good work!! #notahack #picnotavr #noeditsftw

  6. We recently instituted rules at our hackerspace in an attempt to control the accumulation of junk. Each functional area has someone in charge of it (electronics, machine shop, IT, classroom, etc). If someone wants to make a donation, they contact the appropriate area head who will determine if it will fit in the space and if something needs to go to accommodate it. Junque still gets randomly dropped off, but at least now we have a defined process for making a quick “keep it or ditch it” decision.

    1. Yup, we call those people Zone Coordinators and it works better than the previous chaos. Still far from perfect.

      I have a mental check I do on offered donations: “If I saw this at a rummage sale for a dollar, would I buy it on the space’s behalf? A penny, then?”. If the answer is no, then I won’t accept it as a donation, either.

      For some reason, this makes it much clearer when trying to assess whether something deserves to come occupy our limited physical space. Previous ways of thinking about it didn’t offer that clarity, and we often accepted tons of junk because it was “cool” in some undefined way, even if none of us could imagine it actually being used for anything.

  7. There’s gold in them ‘thar ole ‘puters! Literally, and figuratively.

    I did rehab volunteer work for a long-lived non-profit. The mainline was converting college textbooks to braille, and the backroom refurbed old computers to get them back out to low-income families with kids, FOR FREE. What could not be revived can be recycled whole or broken down. Go look on ebay and see how much you can sell a couple pound bag of snipped off gold plated edge connectors for, OR, instructions for reclaiming the gold yourself are easily found all over the internet.

    They also recycled people! I became disabled and that’s how I ended up with them. And that recycling worked really well, put me back in the high end of the game once again.

    When that non-profit went belly up, the state recycled THEM! They took the braille college textbook model and applied it to the prison system, hence college level math textbooks are still being translated, prisoners train into a niche field, blind students have the latest textbooks!

    I see no reason at all a hackerspace cannot turn computer recycling into a training program, donating machines back out, as well as some profit. Largest problem is overcoming the ubiquitous attitude of “It’s too hard.”. PFFFT! Of course it’s hard! Anything worth doing is! Sitting down and whining, giving up, is the only thing that’s easy.

  8. Having spent a good bit of time in the not-for-profit world in the US (as a director, as an officer, and several other positions, before getting fed up and stepping out), and having been to way too much training (uni certificate program in non-profit mgt, among others), I will outright say that unsolicited donations of stuff are almost always without value. We had a written accession/deaccession policy any donor needed to agree to before acceptance of a donation. It included that we could use or dispose of as and when we saw fit, within the bounds of law, of any donation we accepted, and would not accept any unsolicited donation with strings.

    The donor (in the US) is responsible for assigning value. The receiving organization is not permitted to assign value, in general, and that pissed a lot of donors off. If the receiving organization sells the item for less than the assigned value, the donor may have tax concerns. There is a time limit for depreciation (two years for many things, IIRC… consult tax professionals and all other disclaimer) after which we no longer needed to report sale back to the donor, so unusable things either went right back out the door, or, space permitting (good luck on that), we sat on things for a couple years to get past that point. We had a good relationship with the local scrap dealer.

    The big problem was designated monies. We had a couple people that accepted money with strings on behalf of the organization, then spent the money elsewhere (this is sketchy). Designated monies USUALLY need to be separately accounted for- they can’t be treated as part of a general treasury– but the rules are not simple and that is why CPA’s and tax consultants are worthwhile. Unused designated monies may need to be returned to the donor, unless provision was made in the original donation. Really hairy when there are multiple donors, especially if the project is partially completed with different agreements for different donors. Best choice is don’t take designated money.

    As for personal property (loaned equipment, abandoned tools, etc), a written policy is very important. That way, there is no issue when that guy that hasn’t shown up for 5 years comes in and wants to know what happened to his 10″ K-mart bandsaw, with no guards and a special order length blade, that he ‘loaned’ to the organization.

    1. The cost of shipping will rapidly exceed the value of stuff shipped.

      The way we handle this in our area is to pillage the “hackable rack” of any Makerspace we visit.

  9. I’ve been on both sides of this.
    As a senior engineer in a design company, I have donated leftover parts to our local hackerspace (including LCDs, power supplies, and other useful stuff), but I always make it clear (and so do they!) that they are welcome to do whatever they want with the stuff, including binning it. If they decline it, we bin it :-)

    As the former president of a ham radio club, we often got donations of gear from deceased ham’s estates. The gear was usually woefully obsolete, but we took it to our annual flea market, put it on the club table, and almost always, someone bought it. Usually, for not much money, but money is easier to store than dusty, bulky obsolete gear.

    As my mother used to say, “Never look a gift horse in the mouth, someday, someone might give you something you want”.
    But, after the donor leaves, it’s perfectly OK to convert your “new” horse into glue for that carpentry project!

  10. Gee, I wish I had this problem. Despite being in the 12th largest city in the U.S.(Jacksonville, FL), and despite many high tech firms in the area, we still do not have a hacker or maker space. There have been some fits and starts, but they never go very far. So the nearest hack space to me is over 3 hours away.

  11. Also an idea is that junk handling duties, some hours of, should be part of “sweat equity” input for new members… a time honored tradition, to earn keys at the TMRC new members had to put in time on the layout.

    Gets the idea across too, that it’s something to be permanently aware and on top of, and if they later donate stuff or abandon something that can’t claim they didn’t know what would happen.

  12. I run the electronics area in my hackerspace, and there’s one thing I’ve banned from donations: random ICs.

    Common stuff (ATmega328s, 555 timers, maybe logic gates) is OK. Beyond that, there are a ton of specialized ICs out there that were good for the one specific project that the original buyer had in mind, but now they’re just plastic tubes taking up space. Even if I had a project that could use a specific IC, am I going to dig through the pile of ICs on the off chance that we have one? Unless it’s over $50 or so (modify for how much you think your time is worth), probably not.

    1. If you have numbered containers and keep a searchable list of what parts you have, the container they’ve been put in and the date they were put there it becomes easily manageable. Ask the donor for a list in CSV format. If someone takes parts they are required to update the inventory.

      Allocate a fixed amount of space for scavenged or donated materials. Do NOT exceed it. I manage my collection of disposable containers this way. It works very well. If there’s no room for something new, I get rid of something to make room. I use a cupboard in the utility room.

      On a regular basis (e.g. quarterly or when space limits trigger it) all the parts over a certain age with a zero withdrawal rate get placed in a disposal bin. Members are free to take anything they wish from the disposal bin. At the end of the month the remaining contents are disposed of.

      All that’s required is a clearly articulated and enforced policy.

      An excellent article by Jenny as always. Wish I lived near Oxford, England. Oxford, Mississippi is not too far, but still a hike from central Arkansas.

    2. Could you have a special bin just for decapping and looking for chip art?
      ‘Random’ E/EPROMS are usually still usable. I’ll bet someone would have fun sorting through the weird chips, but I could be wrong again.
      No hackerspaces near me to check out or donate goods.

    3. I have several free sample IC’s from TI, Analog Devices, etc.
      Selling them would violate the agreement I in place when I received them.

      I was thinking of donating them to a Hackerspace – this response is not encouraging.

  13. My hackerspace is mostly run by immature twits.

    We have a teardown night to disassembly equipment to scavage for parts and perhaps to learn stuff. We’ve suggested auctions for donated equipment that’s a poor match, but useful for fundraising. Or to just give stuff away to serious members.

    Instead, one night, a half dozen of the bored members hauled donated stuff into the parking lot and smashed it to bits with sledgehammers or by tossing it into the air.. “Oh, look at me, I’m so hip, I’m just like the guy in Office Space”.

    Think of all the useful DC and stepper motors and gears and pulleys that should have been recovered from printers. And lenses and steppers from scanners. Instead it was all reduced to rubble.


    1. I think there’s often a disconnect between what different people think their time is worth. I’m slowly learning it’s not worth me keeping old crap, wasting time recovering parts from it, then finding they’re not up to spec or are faulty, and evenaully buying the right parts from AliExpress for a few dollars.

  14. Storing junk, transporting it, spending the labor to try and extract value from it and reduce its entropy to an acceptable level… all this stuff is labor intensive and expensive. A hackerspace can’t just accept these extra costs dumped on the doorstep when it never asked for them.

    Some suggestions:

    – People should be prohibited from simply turning up and dumping large boxes of “valuable donations” junk unless they have first told leaders/directors exactly what they’re getting and this has been accepted.

    – If people turn up with car boot loads of stuff and leave it there anyway, the hackerspace is perfectly entitled to maybe tell them that they must pack it up and get rid of it, using *their* time and effort and vehicle and expense.

    1. The signage at a local thrift always confused me. “NO DUMPING” “Donations only accepted during business hours” then “NO SCAVENGING” … uh, okay, but if it’s unwanted outside business hours, and sitting there, is it yours or not?

  15. A month after my old hackerspace was founded, we got the haul from a deceased patent examiner who was into old phone stuff. We literally had linesman’s handsets in cat litter buckets from floor to ceiling, and the stuff took months to process. There was a “museum” for a while which housed donations that we could not bear to get rid of. We were buried in that, and other donations, for a year or two.

    We grew, got more space, and the junk piled up in lower piles over more surface area, and then we started using the “put it in a box marked 1 month” system. That works, as long as there are folks motivated enough to categorize the junk and take pictures so that nobody can say they weren’t informed.

    It absolutely doesn’t help that many hackers are somewhere on the wrong end of the hoarder spectrum. (I’m planning to use those LED displays, I swear!) But it’s made a bunch worse when, as in Jenny’s case, legitimately cool stuff comes in that just doesn’t get used. Putting “pitch this on July 14th” stickers on these things and making them publically visible may push those who value the parts the most to finally use them before they lose them. If they don’t jump on it, they weren’t that valuable after all, right? Revealed preference.

    But honestly, it takes a bit of nerve to call someone else’s treasure “junk”, so anyone labelling and schlepping the stuff away is a minor saint, and deserves to be treated as such rather than ranted at. The sorters will nonetheless get ranted at. I’ve personally thrown a 386 computer case with Adam Savage’s signature into a dumpster. I’m getting all misty-eyed thinking about it even now. (Sorry, Adam!) This is not a job for the faint of heart, but at the same time, it requires a diplomatic touch to explain why you tied a time bomb to somebody’s baby.

    Any system that relies on a few core members to shoulder the burden of other folks’ material hangups is kinda crappy, but I don’t know of a better one. The best you can do is spread the burden to as many people are willing to shoulder it. Sometimes offering pizza can help. Sorry, Jenny.

  16. Southampton Makerspace has exactly this issue, and this article really strikes a nerve. As a trustee, but massive hoarder myself, I’m forever eyeing up the ‘junk shelves’ for stuff I can throw away or cart home. Sometimes things I’ve donated or passed on from local companies are stripped down for parts. Sometimes they just gather dust, and eventually end up in a skip.

    Every year, at our AGM we argue a new ‘junk shelves policy’ and it gets passed, implemented, then ignored. The sentiment is good, but the willingness to implement is rarely there. Once in a while (usually a trustee, fed up with the overflow of stuff that’s never touched) the junk shelves are ‘rotated’ (newer stuff is preserved, older stuff discarded)

    Personally in the last few years, I’ve gone from junk shelves advocate, to arguing they shouldn’t exist at all.

    It’s a sticky problem, and I sure don’t know what’s best.

  17. I feel so virtuous!

    My son-in-law informed me that his workplace had a bunch of non-functional Neato robot vacuums. Here’s the virtuous part: I got permission from our makerspace (Gizmo Dojo) president before schlepping the 48 little darlings down to our space!

    Yea, me!

    Seriously, though, we are still working on rules about this kind of thing. We have only had our own space for about a half a year, now, and it took about two days before we were already hurting for storage space.

  18. I live in quite a small town in Scotland about 40,000 people the closest town is around 30 miles away, I really wish we had a Hackerspace but that’s one of the trade offs of living in rural areas. I just don’t think the demand would be here.

  19. I would recommend that your hackerspace host an open “flea market” or “swap meet”. That way, a larger audience could be involved in distributing unwanted items and could also be a way for the hackerspace to add membership.

  20. Have one day a month for destructive analysis but only on the old unwanted stuff. Let people take anything they want on the condition it doesn’t come back. Permit the use of pry bars, hydraulic presses and flamey things. I especially like flamey things (cautious of chemicals).

    Donations are just that and you are free to do as you choose with donated goods. I day like mentioned above would make that clear and people then won’t donate things that they are sensitive about which only costs you for storage anyway.

  21. I can imagine an innovative solution to the problem of all but the largest junk.

    A belt that has boxes of donated stuff, and other such random junk or what have you. Each week/month/whatever the belt cycles and moves the contents ever closer to a dumpster. If it sits around too long, it automatically gets trashed.

    People will know about the policy because who wouldn’t be interested in the automatic trash eating machine that doubles as misc storage

    1. I’ve proposed exactly this, for junk and member-storage alike! Since the only thing that separates one from the other is whether the object is actively cared about by someone who physically visits the space (and could thus move it back to the head of the belt).

      A foot per day, ticking away…

  22. We have a shipping container for a boneyard. Donations are fine (unless they’re literal garbage) but it’s quite likely it ends up in there. And anything in there is fair game for disassembly or discard. We’re quite clear with the donators that this is the case, so if they actually care about the donation not being thrown out they can give the items to someone else.

    Because space in the boneyard is a strictly defined and limited resource, we’ve also got a relationship with a local e-waste recycler with a pretty much unlimited appetite for stuff. So one of our members regularly takes carloads of stuff out of the boneyard down to them.

  23. A little off-topic, but coating an rc-car’s wheels with graphite conductive spray and then driving (drifting) it on the interactive whiteboards while hooked up to a pc running even just ms-paint would be pretty darn cool.

  24. An accessions and disposal policy is sensible. You may even want to have a form that donors sign giving you complete control. It’s marginally more work (manging, storage of forms, etc), but it protects you from the white-board problem, as well as donors thinking things are more valuable and changing their mind after you’ve used/disposed of it.

  25. Here in our MakerSpace Maker Austria in Vienna Austria we are facing different issues with “donated things”.
    Some people think we are sort of an “electronics, computer and other tech-stuff” junkyard and drop boxes with all sorts of electronic waste at our front door while nobody is present inside (most of the time this gets thrown away after sorting out some small useful pieces)
    Some come in and ask if we need “this and that” – so there is at least the possibility to choose.
    We arranged a sharing area for working but not needed things for members where we can put and grab things.

    In general avoiding and generating waste is a big thing here and I think there is no “perfect recipe” overall.

  26. We are in a hackerspace on the same planet, but rather far away from there.

    Please write more about hackerspaces. If necessary, we could rewrite it, sign it with incomprehensible names and examples from a land far away, and resubmit.

    This article came out on the same day we were recieving a motherlode of donations from several places.

  27. Just used the whiteboards as normal whiteboards. That way, if someone wants to use it as a fancy mouse, they actually can. They have a better surface than most whiteboards, too.

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