When Do Charity Mailings Go Too Far?

Donors often struggle over the best way to respond to aggressive marketing tactics.

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Today’s guest post comes from Michael of CreditCardForum.com, where he usually blogs about topics like credit cards for balance transfers and cash back credit cards.

Even in this troubled economy, it’s important for us Americans to remember how incredibly blessed our lives are. Just the fact that you are reading this post means you have access to a computer and electricity – a privilege that the vast majority of sub-Saharan Africa can only dream about. Because we have such an abundance of resources, I feel it’s our moral duty to help those less fortunate.

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This is why my mind was torn when I received a very elaborate unsolicited gift package last week from a charity. Should I respond with a donation? Or ignore them because I don’t agree with their marketing tactics?

The organization which sent me this gift package last week is St. Joseph’s Indian School in Chamberlain, South Dakota. I’ve never heard of them before, let alone donated to them, which is why I was particularly surprised at what they sent me. Inside were custom address labels, metallic stamps, a calendar, a large notepad, a small notepad, and a dream catcher made with leather, feathers, and wind chimes. There was also a “Certificate of Appreciation” presented to me “in recognition of your generosity” along with a donation form.

Now I’m used to getting those address labels from charities once in a while, but I’ve never gotten anything even close to this! Right off the bat I was quite concerned—I am a stickler for efficiency when it comes to charities. I want to make sure at least 85 percent to 90 percent of every dollar I give goes towards the actual cause, instead of administrative overheard and fundraising expenses. So naturally, the cost for this unsolicited gift package caused alarm bells to go off in my head. If I respond with a donation, how much of the money will actually be used for the cause and how much will just go towards paying for more gift packages like this?

I first check my go-to resource, Charity Navigator, to see what they say. I can’t find them listed. Next, I start searching around to see what I can pull up on this organization and find a number of comments from people whom feel the exact same way I do. Everyone seems to agree the root cause behind this organization is good—per capita income in the county where this Indian reservation is located is the poorest in the country at just $5,213 per year. However at the same time, many recipients of these mailings as well as some actual donors are not happy about the amount of gifts that are sent out.

Finally, I stumble upon a BBB “Wise Giving” report issued in 2009 for Saint Joseph’s Indian School with the answer to my question. Here’s how the donations are reportedly used: 59 percent for programs, 30 percent for fundraising, and 4percent for administrative. The 4 percent for administrative is reasonable, but the 30 percent for fundraising seems awfully high and I can’t help but wonder how much of that pays for these elaborate mailings?

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I review the enclosed literature that came with the gifts and the donation amounts they are seeking are as follows:

• $8 will help provide meals

• $12 will help provide bedding

• $15 will help provide clothing

• $35 will help provide all three

• I can’t help now but I’m enclosing $5 to cover the expense of sending my gift

Assuming that last bullet is accurate, that means this mailing costs them $5 to send—actually much less than I thought, but that is still quite a bit of money for something sent unsolicited by a charity. Not to mention, the credit card processing fees on a $5 charge would be relatively high.

To give or not give? As previously stated, my efficiency requirements do not coincide with how this organization is presently run, therefore it would not be a candidate for me personally. But should I give a little something just to pay for these gifts? I would gladly do so but here are two major things that concern me, besides their high fundraising expenses.

First, I don't want to encourage future mailings of this kind. I also don't like the idea of charities invoking "guilt" by sending gifts unsolicited, then expecting something in return because you feel guilty about receiving them.

Eventually, I decide to write this post to express my frustration, which I think other would-be donors probably share. I also decided to write a check for $5 to cover the cost of the mailing but to also include a letter expressing my strong disagreement with their practice (including a request to remove me from their mailing list completely).

The gifts may be nice, but they are a very unnecessary expense. If the charity cut those out, I would imagine their fundraising expenses would be much smaller, and in turn, meet my requirement, and then I would have been happy to make a donation.

For example, I have my credit card set up with World Vision to charge a donation every month. What compelled me to do that? They run a very efficient operation and after reading a fascinating book written by the World Vision president, I can see he shares the same principles as me. Things like that are what will lead me to commit to a charity, not needless gifts that take away from the organization’s bottom line.

In closing and to be fair, I would like to include a link to a comment by Fr. Stephen Huffstetter (the Indian school’s director) where he shares his side of the story, as well as a link to his blog.