A recent post on my favorite consumer-watchdog website The Consumerist captures some of the frustration that Ryan and I and our friends have all experienced when donating to charitable causes: the dreaded stack of mail that almost inevitably shows up from the organizations that we donate to or, even worse, OTHER organizations which have flagged your address as the address of SOMEONE WHO DONATES TO CHARITY AND WHO MUST WANT TO DONATE TO ALL CHARITIES. This is annoying for a number of really obvious reasons: first, for the environmentally-conscious consumer, it creates waste that you now have to deal with (hopefully by recycling the solicitation materials). Nobody likes junk mail. Second, your donations (along with many other peoples’ donations) have likely paid for these solicitations. When we select a cause to support monetarily, most of us don’t love knowing that part of our donation goes to overhead costs like mass mailings; it feels icky, even if it is effective. (I’m not having a lot of luck right now finding sources on how effective this practice is at generating more donations, but I’ll keep looking and update when I find something). Third, and this is just a wild guess, but I tend to assume that in general, people hate being asked to part with their hard-earned money, especially when they’ve likely already donated to a cause. It’s tacky. It’s like accepting a gift from a friend, and then telling some other people that your friend is a totally-awesome gift-giver, so then those people go around asking your friend for some gifts. Right?
The worst offense here is, I think, the fact that some of these mass solicitation mailings look very…expensive. Our friend Tim has complained about those gorgeous full-color LARGE maps that Médecins Sans Frontières sends out to previous donors, and Ryan and I agree that it’s tacky that they send these out. We’ve gotten several of those, along with other additional mail from other organizations, printed on fancy paper and cardstock with color photos and celebrity endorsements and pleas for assistance to insert random organization/cause here. What’s so awful about this is the prospect that these practices would steer someone away from philanthropy—for example, we’re making it a point to no longer donate to Médecins Sans Frontières, even though I love their mission. Look, I’m not knocking transparency. Lord knows, transparency in charitable organizations is REALLY IMPORTANT. But none of these mailings so far have been geared toward shedding light on the organizations’ practices and progress—they have almost all been solicitations for more donations.
So what do we do about this? The obvious answer is to refuse to donate to organizations which sell your name and address and spend significant amounts of money on fancy mailings, but this is easier said than done. We often don’t know which organizations are the offenders until we donate; then we’re stuck going through the hassle of removing our names from mailing lists (which, let’s face it, it sometimes ineffective). The website CharityNavigator (which I don’t really like as much as GiveWell) lists some tips for stopping solicitations by mail, all of which seem to be generally good pieces of advice, though donating anonymously might turn off some of the donors who want to reap the tax benefits of donating. The one piece of advice that they offer and which I’ve also seen elsewhere is to refrain from spreading around your charity dollars too much and stop giving small amounts of money to many charities; they note that “Small donations, such as $25, barely cover the costs the charity incurred in soliciting the gift. To recoup those costs, many charities will simply sell the donor’s name to another charity doing similar work.” Sound advice, but problematic if you care about a number of causes and have limited funds to donate. Obviously we need higher levels of transparency and more accountability involved in the non-profit world (just as we need more of both of those things in the for-profit world as well). I don’t have any viable solutions at this point (this was more of an expressing-frustration post) but I’ll keep thinking about this and we’ll definitely come back to this topic later. Send us any thoughts you have or any experiences you have with particularly bad offenders of this (or alternatively, any great organizations who don’t solicit! I know Ryan hasn’t gotten any mail from the Against Malaria Foundation).