Sunday, November 20, 2011

How to get charities off your case

Okay, so you've made your plan.  You don't want to be the kind of donor who donates based on random mail and phone calls.  If you do, you're choosing charities based on who has the best marketing department instead of who is doing the best work.  So you've decided not to give to any random organization with a nice brochure.

Maybe you've never made a donation in your life.  But maybe you made a donation to a charity a while back . . . and now you're on their mailing list, and somehow a bunch of other mailing lists as well.  Then there are phone calls, and emails, and people standing on the street with clipboards.

Sorry, I can't help you about the people with clipboards.  But I used to work at a large nonprofit, and I do have some advice about the other things.

First, what's good for a charity is not always good for you.  From a charity's perspective, it does make sense to email, mail, and phone their donors (or people they think might become donors).  Even if it seems all that junk mail couldn't be cost-effective, it is.  And if it helps them raise money to save lives, I understand why they do it. So don't think it must be a terrible organization just because they have annoying marketing practices.

What to do:
  • Any charity you've ever given to is probably renting your name and address out, unless you've told them not to. Contact charities you've given to and ask them not to share your information.
  • Most charities can limit the number of mailings and emails you get. If you want to get the monthly news email and one mailing a year, they can probably do that. But you probably can't choose when in the year they send it.
  • The Direct Mail Association has a service that will (supposedly) get you off commercial and charity mailing lists.  It's worth a try.
  • If someone calls you, ask to be taken off their phone list. Telemarketers seem to screw this up a lot, so if you keep getting calls, contact the charity directly.
  • If you keep getting calls from a charity's number and you never pick up the phone, they will keep calling. Pick up and tell them you want no more calls.
  • The "Do not call" registry does not apply to nonprofits. It will not help you here.
  • If you're getting multiple pieces of mail addressed to different people at your house, or different versions of your name, let the charity know so they can merge the accounts.
  • I've heard people advocate using all kinds of threats - "I'm recording this call, and if I get another piece of mail I'll report you to the attorney general", etc. Understand that charities do not have some kind of nefarious plot to thwart your wishes. If you've asked before and it didn't work, it was probably simple incompetence. The person you spoke to may well not even work for the charity, but a fundraising company or an answering service. Call or email again and you'll probably get a different person who can be more helpful.
  • Understand that it takes about two months for most mailing lists to update. If you're still getting mail, understand that, just like at a restaurant, the person you're talking to probably isn't the one who screwed up. Let them know about the mistake, but don't be mean to the person on the phone.


  1. "The "Do not call" registry does not apply to nonprofits."

    That's a very Hansonian dichotomy.

  2. "Even if it seems all that junk mail couldn't be cost-effective, it is. And if it helps them raise money to save lives, I understand why they do it."

    What I don't understand is why charities' junk-mailing practices vary so much. It seems that solicitations would be about as effective at raising money regardless of the organization. But a couple of charities I've given to (the Nature Conservancy, the HSUS) sent me address labels and calendars for three or so years after my last donation, while others that I give to now (the SIAI and Vegan Outreach) have never mailed me anything. It seems that there should be a happy medium.

  3. Carl - I'm not sure which Hansonian dichotomy you mean.

    Pat - maybe it has to do with their target audience? I know charities with an older donor pool do a lot more mail. Probably SIAI and Vegan Outreach have a younger and more techy audience in mind.

  4. I feel obligated to report that I received Vegan Outreach's fall newsletter yesterday, the same day I claimed that the group had never sent me anything. Still, I've gotten relatively little mail from VO.

    Techiness could be a factor. Another reason might have been that I'm using automatic monthly donations with the SIAI and Vegan Outreach, whereas my donations to the other organizations were one-off events, likely motivated by solicitations. I also received little or no mail from PSI, an organization that I gave monthly donations to for a time.

    Still another factor might be that certain organizations don't want to "waste" money soliciting money from donors. As you note, junk mail can save lives, so it shouldn't always be seen as waste.

  5. I studied this for a post I wrote and I discovered that I love PayPal’s Giving Fund – where you can donate to a wide variety of charities via PayPal, who will cover all the processing costs so that 100% of your donation goes to your charity. Most importantly, they give you the option to donate anonymously so you won't get lots of glossy snail mail.

    GiveDirectly and GiveWell are on there, but not all charities.