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Feeling Charitable and a Bit Badgered

The New York Times

April 29, 2006



MY mail now consists, as does most people's, of pleas for money.

There are the regular bills, of course. And then there are the charities — ones I've never given to and even more annoying, ones I have already sent a check that are hitting me up again. And again. And again.

It's hard to raise money. I know nonprofits need to go back to the people who have already shown an interest. But it seems like every few weeks, I receive an urgent plea from acharity asking if I can increase the amount I've already given by $10, $25 or $50. I'm beginning to feel, well, used.

My mother became so fed up, she refused to contribute more to a major aid organization because she felt her money was being used to send her a pamphlet asking for more money.

A friend of mine said she told a national charity that if she was contacted one more time, she would stop sending money for the next 10 years. She got another appeal.

The charity won't be receiving her contribution for another decade.

She's not the only one.

"We're hearing that more and more," said Sandra Miniutti, a spokeswoman for Charity Navigator, an organization that monitors nonprofit groups. "It's a commonly held belief that the more times you ask, the more times you'll get, but people are withdrawing their support."

Then there are those free address labels or trinkets. I remember, oh so long ago, being pleased to receive a few labels, and even feeling obligated to send a contribution. But now most simply go into the trash along with the donation envelopes.

So why do charities potentially alienate supporters by drowning them in solicitations and giveaways?

The first thing I learned is that donors and charities have vastly different takes on the act of giving.

We, as donors, usually look at giving money as a one-night stand. For the charity, hopefully, it's the beginning of a beautiful relationship.

For example, my husband and I contribute to several charities regularly, but if another organization that I like asks for $25 or $50 for a cause that seems pressing, I may write a check and drop it in the mail or donate online — and then pretty much forget about it.

For the charity, that is only the beginning. I'm now on their list and as a first-time donor, the organization knows that I'm much more likely to donate a second time than someone who has never given before.

Research shows that about 25 to 30 percent of people who contribute once to a charity give again and that percentage increases with each additional donation from the same person.

In fact, according to a study by Craver, Matthews, Smith & Company, a direct-mail company in Arlington, Va., that works with nonprofits, charities must give "the highest priority to securing a second gift from new donors" before their interest wanes and they move on to something else.

The 2006 study, called "Donor Loyalty: The Holy Grail of Fundraising," states that "the critical bonding window for a first-time donor is within one-three months of the initial gift."

That means a charity should get in touch with you, after you gave the first time, within three months. Donors who contribute again within three months of the first donation give much more than those who send in money 12 months later, the study says.

The next mailing may not necessarily be a direct solicitation for money, but a report on what the charity is doing — a "reminder" that you may want to bequeath some more cash to this good cause.

So what may seem like harassment to you is actually good business to the charity.

But charities do need to work harder at figuring out ways to solicit people without alienating them, said Christopher Dann, president of DSD Management Fundraising Services in Marin County, Calif.

"There's a lot of badgering going on," he said.

One problem is that from 2000 to 2004, the number of nonprofits increased 23 percent, but the amount of money donated by individuals decreased 2 percent, Mr. Dann said. Baby boomers are partly to blame — overall they donate less tocharity than their parents.

So more charities are scrambling for less money.

While mailings bring in money, they're also expensive, said Eric Johnson, vice president for business development for ParadyszMatera, a New York company that assists nonprofits with direct mail and other services.

If the charity could save money by mailing less and please the customer more, "it would be utopia," Mr. Johnson said.

That's what Amy Golden, director for membership and advancement services at the Nature Conservancy, a national environmental advocacy group, thinks.

She said her organization spent a great deal of time and energy doing statistical modeling on who to send solicitations to, how much to ask, how often to ask and what type of material to send.

Nonprofits are just beginning to use the type of sophisticated analysis, she said, that is more common in the corporate world."It's still, 'you gave us last year, so we're asking again this year, and we'll just keep on asking,' " she said. "We do a lot of mail, but we do it in a smart way."

Ms. Golden said that a first-time donor might receive a special appeal every month from her group. But, she said, a contributor can always contact her organization by writing, phone or e-mail and ask that the solicitations be done once or twice a year, or only online, if so desired.

Other charities say consumers should always let them know if they want solicitations to be limited or stopped, although Ms. Miniutti said organizations are often so swamped they're hard pressed to respond.

Requests to be contacted only once a year or so can also put the charity in a quandary.

"What if it promised to solicit once a year and your mother may miss it or forget it?" said Richard McPherson, president and creative director of McPherson Associates, Inc., a marketing and communications company for nonprofits.

"Should the organization send another solicitation saying, 'Let us know when you want to hear from us?' " he asked.

Consumers can also put their name on a list compiled by the Direct Marketing Association, a trade association, asking not to be contacted by charities (and commercial organizations, otherwise you'll remain on a list of for-profits); however it's a voluntary list, which charities are under no obligation to follow. The association's Web site is www.dmaconsumers.org.

Ms. Miniutti suggests consolidating your giving by donating larger amounts to fewer charities. It does more good, and charities are less likely to want to sell or share the names of their bigger donors — meaning less mail for you — than smaller givers.

Charity Navigator, at their site www.charitynavigator.org, also offers suggestions on cutting down on mailings under its "Tips" category.

And what about those premiums, or freemiums as they are known — the address labels, the greeting cards, the occasional bits of inexpensive trinkets or pens that come unsolicited from about 40 percent of charities.

Again, the first thought is, what a waste of money.

But the fact is, they work. Charities have consistently discovered that solicitations coupled with freemiums bring in more donations than those sent without the freebies, Mr. Johnson said.

Although it might be just an address label or greeting card to you and me, to the charity it's well-honed bait.

Now that I understand the thought behind appeals, I'll probably be slightly more tolerant. Maybe I'll take the time to call or write and tell the charities that I promise to give more if they send me less.

Or maybe I'll just donate anonymously.

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