The Charity Snail Mail Burden

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.

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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.

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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:

Charity Fundraising
Humane Society (31 pieces) 19.1%
World Wildlife Fund (21 pieces) 18.9%
American Red Cross (21 pieces) 6.0%
USO (16 pieces) 26.5%
JDRF (13 pieces) 12.8%
Doctors Without Borders (11 pieces) 10.3%

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 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.

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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.

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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:

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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.

Smile! And your favorite charity benefits.

Recently, Amazon implemented a program called ‘Smile’ that allows you to select a charity who will get a small portion (0.5%) of your purchases. The beauty of this program is that you select your charity one time. Every visit to Amazon after that, they donate. Even better, if you forget to go to the ‘smile’ sub-domain, Amazon will usually remind you and give you a chance to one-click over.

When you consider that Amazon made $74.45 billion in revenue in 2013, this could potentially add up to serious money being donated to charities around the world. If 0.5% of all of their revenue in 2013 was donated, that would be $372,250,000. Yes, $372 million dollars. That is almost 2% of the estimated cost to end homelessness in the U.S. Not bad, that a single company has that capability and puts that power in the hands of their customers.

So click on once, choose your charity, and help contribute to your cause. Finally, spread the word. The more that opt in to this program, the more charities benefit.

BSidesLV, two boxes-of-shit up for charity auction…

For those not familiar, last year I created a new-and-improved Box-of-Shit that was put for charity auction at BSidesLV 2014. Wow, lot of dashes there, go Engrish! For those not familiar with the absolutely legendary boxes-of-shit, take a minute to familiarize yourself with it. The box last year was the center of a heated bidding war, with a BSidesLV security staff member proxying bids from another room, as a bidder was also teaching a class or robbing a casino or something like that. Anyway, Nate the Hero (official title) donated $1,000 to the charities selected by BSides (EFF, Securing Change, and HFC). Outstanding!

This year, I doubled down. There are TWO boxes of shit up for auction…

First, the important part. I humbly ask that you read and focus on this bit, because it is the entire point of my effort and goal in doing this. BSidesLV 2015 auctions will raise money for OWASP, Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), Hackers for Charity (HFC), and Hak4Kidz. Supporting charity is always a good thing, right?

Remember, InfoSec is considered a “zero unemployment” industry, and our average salaries are ridiculous. While we are quick to do the Facebook “like-activism” to support minimum wage increases, many of us spend $6 on a coffee every morning. If you make solid money in our field, and you cannot go out of pocket for 1% of your salary, you should probably skip the next version of “h4ck1ng f0r l33t kidz” and read a book on personal finances. Live a little… give up a shred of luxury, and donate to the greater good. If you win, you will get to read some personal thoughts I have on the matter, and receive a challenge of sorts.

So… there are two boxes this year! You can troll my Twitter feed for a few random pictures that barely tease what are in each. Even better, you can use this blog to see the teaser page that is accompanied with each box! I’ve been told that there will be remote bidding this year, which is very cool. For the next two days, I will also answer questions about each box, in a manner that does not reveal how awesome, or how lame a box is. Rest assured, more time and energy was spent on these two boxes than all other boxes/envelopes I have ever sent out, combined. Each box comes with a ~ 4 page personal letter for the winner, among other things. That has to be worth a postage stamp at the least.



Here you go! You get what the in-person bidders get, the same teaser PDF. If you are at keys, you can play 20 questions via Twitter, while they are throwing back a bud light and telling their new friends about how they found an unpatched WordPress CMS last week.

p.s. These are likely to be the last ever boxes I brew, for many reasons.
p.p.s. In the interest of exposure, I will spam this link several times the next couple of days. DEAL WITH IT

BSidesLV, Charity, and a change of heart.

Read it all heathen! Teaser list of stuff in the charity box is included below.

As most reading this blog know, next week is the annual pilgrimage to Las Vegas to attend the ‘meta-con’. A mix of BSidesLV, BlackHat Briefings USA, DEFCON, and a number of other smaller sub-conferences, meet-ups, gatherings, and the ever present ‘hallway-con’. It is a week of chaos. Incredible opportunity always clashes with regrets, wishing you had checked out a talk, or met up with long-time friends, or run into new people you only know virtually. My first DEFCON was #2, twenty years ago, and it seems like both yesterday and a lifetime ago. I won’t go into a long analysis on how it is changed; just know it has changed drastically. Not saying for the better or worse either, because it is both.

Next week I am putting up an infamous box-of-shit for charity at BSidesLV. I have done charity boxes at BSidesDEN in 2012 and 2014 that raised around $480 for the supported charities (usually EFF and/or HFC). Those were in addition to other charity auctions via eBay to support the Open Security Foundation, EFF, and the Concoctory.

You may notice a trend here. The last few years, I have made a big change to help support charities/NFP a lot more than I did before, including volunteering time as I can. Next week I will be working the registration desk at BSidesLV, and working as a volunteer for the Skytalks at DEFCON. Unrelated to security, I donate a fair amount of money and/or time to animal-related charities around the Denver area. I support a variety of humanitarian efforts to support research to cure ailments, fight hunger, and more.

Now, I want to do more, and I want more security professionals to do the same. As an industry, we make a ridiculous amount of money providing security services. As an industry, we fail miserably at doing so. Sure, we have our individual wins here and there chasing contracts. But as a whole? Digital security is at an all-time low. There is more computer crime, more breaches, published vulnerabilities are not dropping despite incentive not to disclose (if you even quote CVE and a ‘drop’ to me, get out of my industry), and a more fundamental lack of trust in anything related to computers. If we’re making stupid money providing inferior services while towing a favorable line, we need to look inward and re-examine our lives. It simply isn’t ethical to reap the rewards on the back of false promises. As an industry, we need to strive to do better (and we have proven we can’t), or start to give back to more worthwhile efforts.

I encourage you to consider this seriously. Look at how you can give back to the community in more ways than you are currently doing. Figure out more causes that could benefit from your time or financial support. Break away from the corporate high-dollar conferences run by non-security companies and support the home-grown community-driven conferences. Keep that in mind and bid generously on my two auctions.


Next week at BSidesLV, on Tuesday and Wednesday, you can participate in the silent charity auction and bid on this box-of-shit. Unlike previous boxes, I have worked to ensure this one is different, more interesting, and more valuable (which is subjective, I know). First, it has a limited edition DEFCON 22 badge in the box. Only five were made this year! One is up for auction by itself right now, and it sets the stage for the box. Next, there is a hand-knit Lazlo hat made by J. Renee Worsing that comes with care instructions. Not only is the badge made by Make It Urz, there is an engraved Lazlo lapel pin in the box.

If you win this box, you are fully encouraged to embrace that badge. Walk around all of the conferences telling wild tales of your work with Spin stories about the other staff members, what you have endured, what para-military ops you have done on our behalf. This badge gives you creative license to social engineer anyone and everyone you meet. Flash that badge and you have a 0.3% chance of walking into any other party. Flash that badge at the 303 party and I will personally escort you in, even if the party isn’t open to the masses yet. Find me in a random bar, I will buy you a drink or three. ALL WEEK.

That is the tip of the iceberg! In addition to those fine items, the following is contained in the box. And yes, my wording is carefully chosen to keep you guessing, while being entirely accurate at the same time.

  • Collectible currency from 8 different countries.
  • A military challenge coin.
  • Certified piece of history circa 1989.
  • Original ‘FREE KEVIN’ bumper sticker.
  • bracelets.
  • A gift card. For a store, some amount more than a dollar.
  • DEFCOn 21 speaker badge.
  • Lockpicks.
  • A “pocket full of fun”. Make of that what you will.
  • Cold, hard cash.
  • Stickers, items from a jail, and “sparkle power”.

All of that is in addition to the usual box-of-shit stuff that is more questionable in value. This box was designed for fun, for you to enjoy as you open it up and dig through the contents. Nikita contributed a lot of the material found in this box, so you should buy her a booze next week. Not so much for the box, more for the amount of time, effort, and anguish she puts into making DEFCON happen. It isn’t entirely the ‘Jeff show’.

Remember that your money is going to worthwhile charities that help other people. None of this money goes to me. It will go to a fund that is divided up to support EFF, HFC, and Securing Change.


Moving toward 10%…

I took notes for this blog in October, 2010 and never finished it off.

The concept of the tithe goes back thousands of years. Most people I know associate it with churches in England hundreds of years ago. These days I can’t say I have heard of many, if any at all, following the practice in the context of the church.

Over time, very few people or families seem to do it in modern society. With many they simply can’t afford to, as 10% of the take-home cuts too far into life’s necessities. Other families take home more than enough and have become accustomed to spending it on luxury, donating a much smaller fraction to their church.

While I am not a religious person, the idea of a tithe to charitable organizations that I believe in registers on my moral compass. Like most in our society, I spend too much money on things I do not need when other organizations could benefit greatly. I donate from time to time and support a handful of organizations, but I think it’s past time for me to step it up. Either a greater amount of support, or find additional organizations to donate to.

When I started this blog, I had sent off checks to the USO, the Colorado State Lodge Fraternal Order of Police ($20), the Denver Dumb Friend’s League, and Prairie Dog Coalition. Only $105 to four organizations in that month. That is pretty dismal.

This is an area of my life I clearly need to improve.

Saving the world, one dollar at a time…

From time to time, I am asked if I want to donate a dollar to $CAUSE. It happens in retail establishments like Whole Foods, Safeway, Regal Cinemas, and even gas stations. The causes range from charities fighting disease to helping my state recover from wild fires. In some cases, they don’t even ask for a full dollar. Instead, they ask if they can round up to the next dollar and apply the difference as a donation. When asked, I typically say yes, especially if I think the charity is worthwhile.

For many people, a handful of change or even a dollar is not significant. We routinely waste considerably more in various parts of our daily life. Leaving lights on, running the air conditioner, buying frivolous items we don’t need, and much more. Our entire society is one of extreme waste.

The idea of a business asking for ’round up’ change or a dollar for a purchase is brilliant. Charities that mail asking for $10, $25, $50 or more often have little luck because people don’t want to commit to that much, especially when the economy is not strong. However, being asked in public, face-to-face, often in front of other people… you don’t want want to be the asshole that says no to saving children or curing cancer.

For fun, what if every person donated that 1 dollar as asked. Perhaps every movie-goer in 2012 donated when asked. According to the MPAA, 1.36 billion attended movies last year. What would that kind of money do for a worthy charity? And if each of the 25.1 million Netflix customers gave a dollar? What of Spotify’s 5 million paying customers? And Blizzard’s World of Warcraft, with their 10.2 million customers?

Yep, that kind of money put in the hands of well-run charities could do wonders to feed the hungry, assist in research for curing all manner of ills, or do other amazing feats of good. Just think… what if we saw even 1% of Wal-mart’s 100 million customers a week give an extra dollar to charity?

[Update: Several years ago, I had asked various PetSmart employees about the charity they asked customers to donate to. It is done via the Credit Card terminal you swipe your card in, as part of confirming the transaction. After several times of asking, none of them were able to give me a good answer about the charity, just a generic line about helping animals. After publishing this blog today, Sean V. contacted me to provide a link to the PetSmart Charities web site that goes into a lot more detail. Looking at the charity on Charity Navigator, you can see that they operate with minimal admin overhead, and a majority of the money goes to support their stated purpose. Based on this, I will resume saying ‘yes’ to donating to their charity when I shop at PetSmart.]

Not All Charities Are Created Equal

I support charities. Quite a few of them actually. Maybe it isn’t the best use of the money I donate, as dozens receive small amounts, rather than one or two receiving a sizable donation.

I know that with few exceptions, it seems like my donations are mostly wasted, and it has me questioning my support. In the past, I have taken note of charities and their cost of overhead. However, I haven’t kept up with it and I desperately need to. Before I donate another cent, It is imperative that I research each and every charity that I have donated to, and may donate to again.

If you aren’t sure why I have such a concern, let’s examine two charities that are similar, if not equal, in the eyes of most people. Let’s look at the SPCA International and the Humane Society International. To many, these are both charitable organizations that exist to help animals and prevent cruelty to them. On the surface, this is true.

If you dig deeper, you quickly learn that one of them is not like the other, and is not worthy of your donation. Using CharityNavigator, look at the results:

CharityNavigator – SPCA International
CharityNavigator – Humane Society International

Even a cursory glance shows there are serious issues with the SPCA. It displays a Donor Advisory, outlining past problems and items of interest that should influence your donation choice, as outlined by a CNN article. On the other hand, the Humane Society immediately gives you the current rating, along with important financial information such as the charity spending 79.5% of their money on program expenses (i.e. helping as advertised), 5% on administrative overhead, and 15.3% on fundraising.

Compare that with other well-known charities:

Charity Program
Michael J. Fox Foundation / Parkinson’s Research 91% 2.4% 6.5%
People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals 84.7% 1.3% 13.9%
American Cancer Society 71.2% 6.8% 21.8%
George Bush Presidential Library Foundation 45% 40.9% 14%
National Vietnam Veterans Foundation 9.7% 2.4% 87.8%

You can quickly see that some charities are not as efficient as others, spending as much as 87.8% on fundraising. Even though they may keep administrative overhead as low as 2.4%, that is a lot of money spent raising more money, that will only be spent to raise more. This ultimately leads to a cycle where huge amounts of money are wasted, rather than spending it on the stated purpose (program expense). In other cases, you have a charity that is only 14% fundraising, but 40.9% goes to administrative overhead, almost as much as the program expenses. This is often a sign that the charity executives are getting paid obscene amounts of money.

When picking a charity, you want to avoid any of them have either a high admin overhead, or a high fundraising cost. These charities are simply not efficient. Using these numbers, you can determine the “fundraising efficiency”, what describes as “The amount spent to raise $1 in charitable contributions, and calculates for you. To calculate a charity’s fundraising efficiency, we divide its fundraising expenses by the total contributions it receives.

Looking at the national charities I have donated to in the last 12 months, it becomes educational:

Charity Program
American Red Cross 92.2% 4.0% 3.7%
ACLU 86.0% 5.4% 8.4%
Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation 81.5% 7.0% 11.4%
Dumb Friend’s League 77.8% 8.0% 14.0%
Humane Society of US 77.0% 3.7% 19.1%
World Wildlife Fund 73.0% 6.2% 20.6%
Planned Parenthood 72.8% 8.8% 18.3%
USO 72.2% 10.1% 17.5%
St Jude Children’s Research Hospital 70.3% 9.2% 20.3%
March of Dimes 65.9% 10.9% 23.1%
ASPCA 58.4% 5.2% 36.2%
Wounded Warrior Project 55.0% 8.0% 36.8%
National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund 47.5% 5.5% 46.8%
Paralyzed Veterans of America 33.1% 6.8% 59.9%
National Veterans Services Fund, Inc. 21.1% 3.6% 75.2%
Natnl Cancer Research Center [1] 0.5% 1.6% 97.8%

[1] This is part of the Walker Cancer Research Institute, and has been blogged about before regarding it being a scam. This is why I should have done my due diligence.

There are a few others I have donated to as well. One is a 501(c)(3) but isn’t required to file the paperwork for Charity Navigator to perform an analysis. Several others are legitimate charities, just much smaller so they fly well under the radar of such a site. For example, Lita’s Squirrel Rescue, Ellicott Wildlife Rehab Center, and Cavy Care are such charities.

Based on the chart above, I know that I have donated to one sketchy charity, and not picked so wisely for others. I am not sure what a good ratio is to maintain, but the top percentile is a good guideline. Moving forward, I will only donate to charities that have a good return on investment.

In case you are wondering what prompted this article, it was the relentless snail mail sent by most of these charities. For a few, donating $25 one year led to what seems like solicitations that cost them $50 included pens, calendars, notepads, lapel pins, stickers, address labels, envelopes, cards, stamps, calculators, and more crap. Every time I received one, I wondered why they didn’t use my money to help their cause. Why do they mail me every 10 days asking for more money? This led me to wonder about their fundraising efforts, and as we see above, some charities specialize in it instead of actually helping people.