Inside Job: charity logistician

Frank Hersey is trying every job in Beijing. This month: second hand social media-based shoe sorter

We're squatting over the newest donation in Suishou Gongyi's warehouse out past the Sixth Ring in dusty Tongzhou. Piles of clothing and bric-a-brac surround us and one end of the space is stacked to the rafters with sacks ready to be dispatched to needier areas in Guizhou, Sichuan and Gansu provinces.

A young couple have just dropped off a donation, their first ever – two bags of clothes – and I mistakenly think that we'd start sorting them into the respective bins for gender, age and season. No. First everything is photographed, Weibo'd and WeChatted. 'An IT company has developed and donated an entire social media integration platform for us,' explains Vanessa Yang, one of the volunteers at Suishou Gongyi. I wasn't expecting that.

We register Cheng Mo and Wu Hao's donation and give them a code. Then, via the donated software, the photo is instantly shared on Weibo with a description of how many items were donated. The couple will be notified when their donation leaves the centre as part of a shipment and can even track it to its final destination, just not to the individual recipient. 'Because we haven’t worked out how and… there’s no need!' explains Fan Yingfa, the charity's only full-time paid employee, as I help hurl sacks of clothing to him at the top of the Great Sack Wall.

Charity man tosses bag edit

'People want everyone to know how much they've donated,' explains Vanessa. Though Cheng Mo and Wu Hao seemed more concerned about sending their clothes to people who need them. But then a donor who
has also brought something from a friend registers her separately so she can start building up her own donor profile.

Suishou Gongyi receives donations every day of the week in person, by kuaidi and the majority come by regular post. We log the deliveries into the system, notifying the senders that their items have been received.

Families arrive, some are such regulars that they help us sort the items. I join regular donor and volunteer Wang Lixia on a small hill of shoes, checking then matching and tying them into pairs. 'Some of these are brand new,' she tells me, working through a stack still in their boxes. In fact, everything seems in very good condition. 'It's because donors have gone to quite a lot of effort to send these things to us, and then it's registered,' Vanessa points out. 'The weirdest thing I think we've had donated is a chest expander exercise thing. I mean, the people we donate to have to really toil in their daily life. They don't need exercise equipment.'

The most valuable and least practical items are sorted into yet another category which is then sold to raise money for the logistics.

Books are in high demand, with thousands lining the shelves. 'Volunteers can borrow them like from a library,' Vanessa tells me, pointing to the signing out book. There's also a list of prices in case volunteers want to buy any of the clothing.

Charity man bends over edit

To incentivise volunteers, organisers plan regular activities and, as we're just a few days off Dragon Boat Festival, the planned incentive is making zongzi. While I learn how to make the sticky parcels, the other volunteers tell me why they come here: 'Because I can', 'It's quite social', 'It’s nearby'. It'[s a fun bunch and they're photographed in a group every shift as part of the social media machine.

Back on the sorting, I'm taught how to know what to send to each location. To make sure needs are met, the charity has volunteers in areas where the donations are sent who submit request forms. A consignment is picked and dispatched, with the donors getting regular texts about the progress. At this point I realise, only the shoe sorting is anything like any charity work I've done before.

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By: Frank Hersey
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