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Trash it

An easy way to make your donations more effective

Issue: "Millions cut down," Jan. 17, 2009

If things are really bad for the economy in general for the year ahead, one component may have it even worse. Those are the folks who manage the charitable and non-profit organizations of our society.

Your mailbox has probably already been cluttered with the panic messages. Giving is drastically down! Our needs are dramatically up! Please dig deep! Whatever you gave last time, would you please consider doubling it this time around?

I have an alternative suggestion: When you get the next request like that, trash it.

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I first proposed this here a couple of years ago. I repeat the suggestion now-and even enlarge on it-both because the times call for it and because several friends have urged me to do so.

First, a simple reminder about the cost-and goals-of fundraising. The most modest of fundraising packages these days tends to cost the sender at least 50 cents each. It's pretty easy to spend more. That means that an organization's mailing to 100,000 people will cost a minimum of $50,000.

It's rare for a mailing of this sort to get a response exceeding 2 percent. That means that, at best, 2,000 people might be expected to send a gift to the sponsoring organization. If all those 2,000 people send an average of $25 each, the revenue-get ready for a rude surprise here!-will total $50,000.

But isn't that just about what the mailing itself cost? What's in it for the charitable organization?

What's in it, mainly, is that the charitable organization now moves your name from its big list (the 98 percent who didn't respond) to its very special and prized list of the 2 percent who did respond. They've got your number now! You are a responder. But every last cent of the $25 you sent them was used to pay for the mailing.

And as a responder, you should expect a good bit more mail than you used to be getting. Statistically, the charitable organization knows now that you're likely to keep saying yes to their various appeals. And the appeals, which used to come just once a year to test whether you were a responder or a non-responder, will now come every month-because you've let them in on your personal secret.

Multiply that by a dozen different organizations, and you've explained why your mailbox is so full. Put that full mailbox in the context of a hurting economy, and you'll see why the mailbox isn't just full, but glutted. For countless organizations, all this is just a cost of doing business. If it costs $100, or $1,000, to find a donor (like you) who over the next 10 years might give $5,000, isn't that a legitimate expense? Maybe so-but I would argue it's legitimate only if you, as the donor, understand the process involved and are under no illusions about where your money is going.

So having lost control through so simple a process, I suggest it's time to take control again through an equally simple process. Just throw those appeals away-just as fast as they arrive. Or, if you want to be a bit more civil about it, prepare a form letter of your own to send to the organizations that have been mailing to you. Tell them you no longer want to play this game, and to save them money, you'd like your name removed from their list.

And then. Then get involved in some disciplined, thoughtful-and really generous-stewardship. Instead of shotgunning $10 and $25 and $50 gifts all over the direct mail landscape, pick two or three (or more) worthy causes and support them robustly. Set a goal (I'm assuming you're already tithing to your local church) of designating an additional 1 percent for Christian education, still another 1 percent for Christian relief or social work, and still another 1 percent for missions or evangelism. (One percent is easy to calculate!). And then keep going.

Now you've done those charitable and nonprofit organizations a double favor. You've moved yourself from their list of nickel-and-dime donors to a really important list of a few of them. And you've reduced their overhead.

Just imagine what would happen if a million Christian donors did that for a thousand organizations. I'm enough of an optimist to think it might actually make on impact on the larger economy as well.

If you have a question or comment for Joel Belz, send it to jbelz@worldmag.com.

Joel Belz
Joel Belz

Joel, WORLD's founder, writes a regular column for the magazine and contributes commentaries for The World and Everything in It. He is also the author of Consider These Things.

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