If you have ever donated to a charity, you likely received something in the mail from them down the road. A thank you note (and request for more money), a new fundraising initiative where they would like you to donate again, or general information (and request for more money). What happens when you donate to a dozen or more charities over the years? The amount of snail mail you get from those charities, and many others you have never donated to, gets out of hand. At the start of 2015, I decided to keep all of the snail mail I received from charities for the entire year. How much would it be? What kind of ‘gifts’ would add up over the year?
Before the fun bits and pictures, a quick background on this. Charities have three primary categories for spending money: administrative (e.g. salaries, office supplies), fundraising, and program expenses (i.e. what their cause is). Charities are rated based on that breakdown, among other things, by the excellent CharityNavigator web site (a 501c3 not-for-profit themselves). As an example, let’s look at the breakdown for Paralyzed Veterans of America, who spends almost two thirds of the money it brings in trying to raise more money. They only spend 33% of their money on the intended cause; helping paralyzed military veterans. That is an absolutely horrible ratio and not a charity anyone should support. They are essentially in the business of raising money. All of the snail mail you get from charities falls under that ‘fundraising’ category. If a given charity sends what seems to be an obnoxious amount, that is money they could be better spent on the program expenses.
In one year, I ended up receiving 351 pieces of mail from charities, that weighed 26.6 pounds. It’s hard to say if this is truly a lot, and what led to this. I donated to 32 different charities in 2014, some in a manner that would not have led to any snail mail (e.g. “would you like to donate a dollar to..” during grocery store checkout). A few were local charities that do not maintain mail lists and would not have generated any mail. Other bigger charities though, certainly took the opportunity to solicit me for additional money. And at least one of those charities sold or shared my information with other charities that I never donated to, and in some cases would not. To offer a bit of perspective, the 26.6 pounds of charity mail can be contrasted with the 10.8 pounds of ‘commercial’ snail mail I received.
Back to charities! Who were the worst offenders? The top six charities by snail mail volume are as follows, with links to pictures of their offering, and what percentage of their money they spend on fundraising:
Note that I have donated to the top five charities on that list, but never donated to Doctors Without Borders. Considering that I received snail mail from around 75 different charities, almost three times as many as I donated to in 2014, that is certainly interesting. Also note that many charities were right on the heels of 11 pieces, but I had to pick an arbitrary amount to highlight above. Charities should note something very important! This level of snail mail is a waste of money, and does not encourage some contributors to keep donating. I understand that direct mail campaigns are a huge source of revenue, but finding a happy medium for the amount of requests versus the expected income would be appreciated. Someone donating $25 to a charity and receiving 30 pieces of mail, is watching $14.70 of that money go to postage alone (for charities that are paying full price, which some do). That money should be spent on program causes, not soliciting for more money that will likely be wasted.
Now the fun bits. Which charities sent me money? Yes… a long-standing gimmick of some charities is to send some level of money, typically under a dollar, and ask that you send them more back. They usually want 25 – 1000% more of course. This gimmick is frowned upon by many people, and for good reason. First, it is just that, a gimmick. Second, for charities that put a nickel, dime, or quarter in the envelope, they are quite literally throwing money away. Many people are tired of receiving the snail mail spam and quickly throw it away, coin or not. Even March of Dimes no longer sends a token dime in the mail. In 2015, Paralyzed Veterans of America sent $0.15 (3 nickels), FINCA sent $0.10 (2 nickels), Unicef sent $0.10 (2 nickels), Sierra Club sent $0.30 (6 nickels), National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund sent $1.50 (6 quarters), Keepers of the Wild sent $0.50 (1 half dollar), Leukemia & Lymphoma Society sent $0.05 (1 nickel), and CARE.org sent $0.05 (1 nickel). All said and done, I cleared $2.75!
Next, what is it about mailing address labels and charities? I mean seriously… almost every single one thinks that sending me such labels is a ‘gift’. Do these people not understand that the average adult in 2015 does not send that many written letters? Even people who send in checks to pay bills don’t generate too much snail mail. Yet, the National Wildlife Federation sent me enough address labels to mail a letter a day, every day of the year. Amnesty International sent 96 mailing labels in a single piece of snail mail… and sent three of those mails. USO sent 81 address labels in a single envelope. I didn’t have the patience to try to count them all individually, but I did take the time to count 154 sheets of address labels, weighting 558 grams, or 1.23 pounds.
Membership cards are another popular thing to send, because membership apparently has its privileges? By privileges, I mean it grants you absolutely nothing. Yet, dozens of charities want you to carry that card around… yet none of them send you a new, bigger wallet. National Wildlife Federation sent me four membership cards in a single year, and Sierra Club sent me six. I have not donated to either.
If that isn’t odd enough, the support stickers that are sent out are certainly interesting! In addition to the usual “Don’t give me a speeding ticket” stickers, that you receive from supporting law enforcement organizations, I received a NRA 2015 member sticker! Despite never donating to the NRA, or contacting them. It makes me wonder if that is how the NRA claims such high membership numbers. Is it based on who is on their mail list?
Moving on to stamps! Yes, postage stamps. A few charities will include a stamp in their offering, with the intent that you use it to mail them more money. While this is a variation of the ‘coin’ gimmick, the real tragedy is that some nonprofits have figured out the USPS offers special rates for charity-related mail, and others have not. The USO understands this, as their Self-addressed Stamped Envelopes (SASE) include five 1-cent stamps on them, while the Human Society of America sends a SASE with a forever stamp. Regardless, all of the stamps included, on an envelope or not, can be re-purposed since they have not been used to send mail yet! In 2015, I received two Forever stamps, one Postcard stamp, nine 10-cent stamps, one 4-cent stamp, seven 3-cent stamps, three 2-cent stamps, and 85 1-cent stamps. That is $3.39 in stamps! If they came in a sealed roll, I could return them to the post office for cash per old hacker legend. Alas, I can just tape them onto an envelope as needed, and they are still valid stamps.
To wrap this up, what else did I get? Nine calendars and 26 writing pads, apparently for the silly number of letters these charities think I write, that demand thousands of mailing address labels.
I also got card sets (again, maybe explains the address label flood?), magnets, random swag, calendars and paperwork, as well as X-mas specific gifts:
And finally, two bits of pure amusement. First, ‘Doctors Without Borders’ seems to be fond of sending us Americans world maps. Yes, yes.. I know, Americans suck at Geography. But sending us world maps that we’re to hang up on our wall, of our first-world decorated establishments where style and the artist’s name matters more than actual living enjoyment? Please. But I get you, send the maps, rub it in that we’re a nation of stupid.
Second, all of this snail mail spam… can you opt out of it? Nope. At least, none of it includes any wording or forms or telephone numbers to remove yourself from the snail mail lists. For the charities that call as often as they send snail mail? If you complain enough, and trust me, ‘enough’ is relative… they will eventually opt you out. But then? They send you a not-so-form letter. In the case of March of Dimes, they write:
“… we are writing to you because of your request not to be contacted by telephone… please donate $25 to us”
I donated $5 to them on 2014-06-04, meaning it was “target of opportunity” (e.g. grocery store, or some case where someone asked me to donate). This was not a yearly contribution I make to half a dozen or more charities that I feel are making a difference. In the span of half a year, March of Dimes called me enough that I got fed up with them and specifically asked to be removed from their spam call list. They did as I asked! But then… reverted to snail mail to ask me for more money.
In summary, U.S.-based charities are living in the 80’s. They send pads of paper and mail address labels, on the heels of you telling them “quit harassing me”. They send stamps and currency in a desperate attempt to guilt you into donations. Some send you as many as 30 pieces of snail mail in a calendar year, on the back of a $50 donation given to a specific sub-group of their organization (e.g. in my case the Prairie Dog Coalition, a part of the Humane Society). If I want to find out if the Prairie Dog Coalition printed a new token adoption certificate, I e-mail the director. And Lindsey responds to me personally every single time. That is what I want to support… both prairie dogs in jeopardy, and the director of a non-profit group who takes the time to respond to my emails, helping me to support their cause in the specific way I want to. This is a model for how charities should work in 2015/2016. Instead, most are still stuck in the early ’80s, sending me dead trees that I don’t need or want.
If the director of a non-profit can’t reply to you, or even sign that Christmas card they sent, while asking for more money? That is bad. They should task their staff to send personal replies and sign such cards. It doesn’t matter what name ends up on it; it matters that someone on the other side appreciates my contribution, and takes the 30 seconds to read and reply to me or scribble their mark. In fact, I think that might be a great criteria for charities I support in 2016. No personal contact? Then maybe the charity is too big and has plenty of money coming in. Maybe they don’t need my donation. Instead, I can give to local charities, which I have started focusing on, where I can see exactly how my money is used, and even stop by and talk to the ‘director’ or staff when I want. I put that term in quotes because it is a misleading title for small local charities, for someone who is often knee-deep in mud or animal poo, doing their best to make the charity work. With that personal connection, especially when I find myself volunteering or visiting, then I feel very comfortable telling friends, family, or social media about their cause and encourage them to donate as well.