Viewpoints

If charities want us to give more, stop selling our names

A patron donates money in a Salvation Army red kettle in Wilkes-Barre, Pa. Karin Klein says people won’t give to charity if one donation leads to many solicitations from other groups.
A patron donates money in a Salvation Army red kettle in Wilkes-Barre, Pa. Karin Klein says people won’t give to charity if one donation leads to many solicitations from other groups. The Citizens’ Voice via AP

The season is over. Yes, the holiday season, but also the season for making those end-of-year donations to our favorite charities.

 
Opinion

But we’ll soon have the season that predictably follows: The time when we receive appeals from the hydra-headed machine of charitable giving. Donate to one nonprofit, and it will sell or share our information with others; each donation leads to five or 10 appeals for more. The idea is that if we gave to one environmental organization, we’re an easy touch for every eco group that can get our names.

I know a lot of envelopes are headed my way, many of them thick with those decorated return-address labels, which used to raise an interesting ethical question: If we don’t sent money back to that charity, can we still use the labels without feeling guilty? After all, they’ll just go to waste if we throw them out.

These days, the labels also bring a different question to mind: With email replacing snail mail, Evites replacing invites and online bill payments replacing paper checks, why do charities think we have any use for those labels?

The truth is that most of us aren’t glad to get yet more appeals or address labels. We like to think that our donation a month ago is helping to fill a gap in the world. When one gift is followed by eight more pleading letters, we are confronted with the frustrating realization that the gaps are too large and too many for us to ever have a hope of plugging anything.

Instead of receiving gratitude for what we did, we’re being dinged for everything we didn’t. Believe me, this doesn’t make us want to give more.

Some nonprofits put a box in their appeals that donors can check if they don’t want their information shared with other charities. But consumer privacy shouldn’t be something we have to opt in to – if we happen to see the small print at all. It should be the default.

As far back as 2004, Charity Navigator, which rates and reports on nonprofits, reported that the selling and sharing of donor names was a blight. “Benevolent individuals who choose to give should not have their generosity punished with unwanted telephone appeals and inundated mailboxes,” Trent Stamp, the group’s executive director, said at the time.

Here’s what’s even worse: When we dig into our wallets to give to a good cause, only to have that same nonprofit pepper us with an unending stream of additional appeals. If I had more, I would have given it in the first place. Instead, I end up feeling that most of the money I gave has been spent on mailings back to me – not on the medical care for poor women as promised.

Charities are already going to be in worse shape because of provisions in the new tax law that make itemizing deductions less attractive. Surely, alienating those of us who still give isn’t the answer.

Karin Klein is a freelance journalist in Orange County who has covered education, science and food policy. She can be contacted at karinkleinmedia@gmail.com. Follow her on Twitter @kklein100.

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