Service of Charity

January 18th, 2010

Categories: Audacity, Charity, Manipulation, Radio, Responsiveness

I wasn’t always this cynical, but I can’t help but cringe every time I hear a radio or TV station tell me to go to their web site to find legitimate resources that accept money to help Haitian earthquake victims. I similarly flinch when I see retweets of announcements that this or that organization, publisher or business is launching or supporting a fundraising drive.

For one thing, some of the stations that are promoting these “good works” are the very ones most of whose hosts can’t bear to part with a penny in taxes on their bloated incomes to help others. They celebrate the “free market system” that removed all the constraints that previously held banks, insurance companies and others in check, encouraging a dynamic of greed which in part accounts for the financial earthquake the world currently experiences.

So I smell a rat when they ask their listeners and viewers to go to their web sites-I see them translating each hit into future advertising dollars.

Can’t you just hear it? “Look at how generous and wealthy our audience is! Advertise with us and the same riches can be yours. Why, through our web site, we are responsible for collecting $X million to help this tragic situation,” all said with appropriately pious, self-righteous expressions. “Aren’t we wonderful?”

But that’s not all. In past crises, such as the horrendous tsunami in South Asia  in  2004, I donated money directly to a charity I knew was legitimate, only to be bombarded for years after with so many marketing pieces that I became frustrated and angry. I am certain that the cost of producing and mailing these pieces far exceeded the amount of my donation. I didn’t give money to support fundraising.

There are legitimate, truly well-meaning people and organizations. President Obama has charged Presidents Clinton and George W. Bush to bird dog disbursement and implementation as well as fundraise and help untangle the horrific crisis in Haiti. They hope to help a country down on its knees to stand tall on solid infrastructure. They, too, have a web site–www.clintonbushhaitifund.org. Maybe this is an answer?

What’s a person to do if they want to support a cause, but at the same time they don’t want to add to the self-aggrandizing initiatives of a company or subsidize a fundraiser’s marketing department? Any ideas?

12 Responses to “Service of Charity”

  1. Ann L Said:

    Send this blog to the charity and let’s hear the response……..
    Personally, I have given to a particular charity for years and have always enclosed a note requesting my name be withheld and that absolutely nothing is to be sent to me. I have never had a problem. Agree with you that the mailings should be by request only…. but let’s hear how.

  2. Jeanne Byington Said:

    Ann L,

    Brilliant solution.

    And to save time, I should write one note with this request, leaving a blank, as in Dear ______, and make a bunch of copies so that every time I send a check [because I am uncomfortable sending my credit card number helter skelter over the web], I’ll pop in a copy and keep fingers crossed.

    Thanks.

  3. Mervyn Kaufman Said:

    I share your cynicism, Jeannie. I recall, when I was in the Army overseas, since I was a junior officer, I was anointed the post’s Red Cross Fund Drive rep——because there had been some kind of natural disaster back in the States that the military worldwide was to raise money for.

    I had no choice. I accepted the job…then became literally inundated with slick Red Cross information materials—4-color brochures on shiny paper that, even then, were costly to produce. It was clear to me then that little of the solicited funds would actually help the people or institutions who were allegedly in need.

    That happened decades ago, but I am convinced that nothing has changed.

    —Merv

  4. Carolyn Gatto Said:

    I rarely disagree with you, Jeanne, but this time I must. I’m glad to see that at least one of the large TV networks has stepped up and created a way to centralize giving following the earthquake in Haiti. Call me naive, but I see it less as self-serving than as a way to help people avoid the charity scams that multiply so quickly following a natural disaster. Anyone who is concerned about how their donations are used should check out CharityNavigator.org. They have evaluated the financial health of over 5,400 US-based charities. Easy-to-read pie charts break down expenses for programming, administration and fundraising. They have links to helpful articles covering topics such as best practices of savvy donors, six questions to ask a charity before donating, how to stop solicitations by mail, and tips for older donors. They even list compensation for each charity’s head honcho, expressed as a percentage of expenses. Many years ago, when I discovered through Charity Navigator that the CEO of a favorite pet charity was earning considerably more than the the president of the United States, I cut them off immediately. I couldn’t tolerate the thought of my money being used to line that guy’s pockets, rather than help animals. When it comes to giving, Charity Navigator can help all of us make sound decisions.

  5. Jeanne Byington Said:

    Between Ann L and Carol Gatto, we are all set….But if you are dashing off a modest check to support the Haitian crisis or in memory of a friend who has just died [and you are upset], does everyone have time to check out charities on CharityNavigator.com?

    I plan to give the site a look-see in a calm moment, that’s for sure. Such a site serves an excellent purpose. I am curious to know how much is spent on what I consider frivolity at some of the organizations I’ve supported.

    However, when I just consulted my nasty intuition, I still felt suspicious of the networks–TV or radio–doing a so-called service of noting the legitimate charities to save us from the scammers because I feel that those who would fall for the cheat-in-a-crisis storefront charities wouldn’t be watching or listening to the stations in question and I still see the blowhards selling their strength and the generosity of their audiences for profit. I’m of the “give and don’t tell or boast” school, as old fashioned as it may seem.

  6. Jonathan Dogood. Said:

    In the spirit of your purported political incorrectness and as a past trustee and board officer of various not-for-profit organizations, including fifteen years as chairman of one’s audit committee, I’d like to broaden the scope of your post.

    Item, the hugely wealthy boarding school I attended juiced up its revenue raising efforts to the point where it employed seven people to send out almost a piece of mail a week to its alumnae. I proposed that should it stop sending me mail, it would save them $1,000 p. a., and that that would be my contribution for the year. The fund raisers were furious because, of course, I was attacking the way they made a living.

    Item, despite the fund raising environment being uncertain for a variety of reasons, a well endowed not-for-profit institution embarked on a campaign to raise “X” to be added to its endowment, To accomplish this goal, it retained, as well as hiring additional in-house staff, a prestigious fund raising concern whose fees came to “Y.” I left the board, but later I discovered that the campaign raised only 20% of “X,” which turned out to be less than four times “Y.” Somebody didn’t do their job, i.e. the consultants who should have told the board to forget the idea.

    Item, I once gave a work of art to a prestigious East Coast museum. The item cost me “X” at auction. The appraisal of the gift came to three times “X,” The museum’s gift acknowledgement netted me a tax deduction sufficient to save me from having to pay one and a half times “X” in taxes – a handsome cash profit. I’m not proud of that one, and I didn’t do it again, but it was perfectly legal.

    Item, the principal of a not-for-profit enterprise, in return for my having helped him out with some problems, once offered to inflate significantly for tax purposes the amount of my gift on the entity’s receipt for my gift. I declined the offer.

    Item, a conversation took place within my hearing, in which an individual described the negotiations which took place between a major not-for-profit entity and a donor as to the meaning of the word “perpetuity.” The donor was giving a wing to the entity and wanted it named after him in perpetuity. (Apparently, the fat tax deduction wasn’t enough of a pay back.) The entity would only agree to keep his name on the building for thirty years — some strange definition of “perpetuity!

    I could go on with numerous other examples of what charity has so often come to mean in this country, yet it is still fair to say that Americans are about the most generous people around, except perhaps the Swedes. The charity industry may be badly flawed, but it can be fixed because the will to give is well entrenched. Just a little tinkering is needed.

    For starters, separate the words “tax” and “charity.” Eliminate tax deductibility. If our motive is truly charity, why should we expect to get something back when we give? Make charities taxable. Why should a church or a school or a theater or a foundation not have to pay, for example, real estate taxes just like I do? Staffs might work harder and more efficiently if they felt the pressure of money being short.

    Then get for profit corporations out of the giving business. If you are “for profit,” you are supposed to be making money, not giving it away, besides your very nature — that of greed comes before all else — contaminates the ideals for which charities should stand.

    Finally, don’t give to charities you don’t know (I prefer ones run by volunteers), and set an example like Ann L. by giving anonymously. Then maybe we’ll get some charity back into charity.

  7. Jeanne Byington Said:

    Jonathan,

    An amazing comment. Thank you for taking the time and for caring to share your ideas.

    I see the benefits of getting for profit corporations and tax deductions out of the business of giving as it would eliminate those who give for all the wrong reasons, and yet what a hole that will make in the pockets of legitimate charities. Do you really think they will survive, Jonathan? How will they make up the difference?

    And as I rethought Carol’s comment, had the TV and radio stations sent us to the charity web site she did, I would not have written the post in the first place.

    Thank goodness Americans are as generous as they are. A wonderful tradition that makes me proud.

  8. Deirdre Said:

    When a network sends you to its site rather than directly to a recognized charity, it’s usually a venal attempt to get website clicks. The generous thing during a catastrophe is to send people directly to the source: redcross.org, for example. In some cases, TV stations put up pages that had links to many charities, and it made some sense to have the intermediary stop on the way to giving. But the simplicity of “text 90999” can’t be beat, and meant no intermediate steps. (Unless my cellphone company finds a way of charging an extra fee — we’ll see.)

  9. Jonathan Dogood Said:

    Jeanne – Thanks for giving me the opening to answer your questions by elaborating on my thoughts.

    Charity has become big business — almost like Wall Street. Fund raisers earn big bucks, and the more money they raise the more they earn. Not just fund raisers are involved, armies of accountants, lawyers and bureaucrats, with their support staffs and computers, make handsome livings off the giving. If you got rid of tax deductibility, not only would you get rid of much of the expense now involved, directly and indirectly, in fund raising, but you would massively increase tax revenues.

    People who genuinely wished to give would go on giving, and those, wonderful, deserving charities would go on being supported because they deserved to be, not because some fund raiser was out to make a buck. (Worthy causes find backers. It’s a little like “Nature abhors a vacuum.”) Granted, there would be far fewer of them, but the ones that survived would be the well run ones with real, worthwhile missions.

    Meanwhile, all that cost saving and tax revenue could be put to work creating a “Service Corps,” subject to military discipline, into which all youths, without exception, were required to serve at minimum wage and compelled to work hard for two years. (Being of an age where I was subject to the draft when young, I spent two miserable years as a private in the US Army. It was the best thing that ever happened to me, better even than my years at that great boarding school I referred to in my previous comment!) That might help solve the “youth problem” we now have, whether we admit or not. It might also lower prison populations, now and in the future, helping solve yet another problem. Then again, it could lower medical costs, were the Corps used to do menial hospital work. The possibilities are endless. As for all those unemployed accountants, lawyers and fund raisers, they could go to work productively making products to compete with those the Chinese make and lend us the money to buy. We might even go back to being thrifty instead of a nation of borrowers.

    Jonathan

  10. Nancy Farrell Said:

    I agree that Charity Navigator is a great resource for donors. I do think, though, that it’s unrealistic to expect that none of your donations go to fundraising/marketing/branding–in the for-profit world, that would be like expecting to pay only the cost of manufacturing, say, baby shampoo–no advertising at all. But am I going to buy a product from a company I’m unfamiliar with and just cross my fingers that it won’t scorch my daughter’s corneas if it gets in her eyes? Of course not. I’m going to want it manufactured by a company I’ve heard of, a company that I trust, a company that has a reputation for manufacturing safe products for children. The same is true for charities. If you want to give to charities that you’ve heard of, then some marketing or fundraising had to take place for you to have heard about it in the first place. Charity Navigator will at least allow you to make an informed decision about what percentage of your donation will be spent on expenses and fundraising and, more important, how much will go to those in need.

    The comments about taxes are interesting. I’m of the belief that many non-profits do the work that governments can’t or won’t. They run food pantries/kitchens, provide emergency shelter, provide money for medical research into thousands of conditions–from premature births to cancer to heart disease. Some provide medical care and some run schools. I believe that in the end they save tax payer money. Museums and theaters and schools aren’t saving lives but they can and do generate tourism dollars and I believe they raise property values (you probably won’t want to mention nearby factories in your real estate listing but you’re sure going to want to mention all of the cultural offerings the area has to offer.)

    For those of you who are tired of unsolicited mail, you can contact the Direct Marketing Association and request that you’re put on the “Do Not Mail” list.

  11. Jeanne Byington Said:

    Nancy,

    Great information and sensible perspective—thank you.

    I don’t expect zero money to go to marketing and fundraising—I’m on and have been a member of foundation boards for years. But perhaps there should be levels of mailings depending on how much money a person has donated to a charity. If under $50, the numbers and size of mailings should be X or none. Under $100, Y and so forth.

    Corporations go overboard when they spend more on marketing than on service. I’ve had horrible service from corporations that send expensive marketing pieces to assist me in “running my business” when what would help me most is to give me the service I am paying for. I have written to tell them to stop spending money on this stuff and to use money to fix their inefficient service. In this economy, most of this annoyance has stopped because of the expense and because marketing on line is cost efficient–a very large favor.

  12. Jonathan Dogood Said:

    I don’t want to beat the proverbial dead horse, but I want to respond to Nancy Farrell’s excellent comment. She’s absolutely right, of course, about the value of a charity’s marketing to raise the funds needed to keep it going. The question is a matter of degree. Aren’t 40 to 50 pieces of mail a year a little much?

    On the tax deductibility issue, Nancy seems to be making the assumption that, without tax deductions and tax exemptions, there wouldn’t be any food kitchens, hospitals and theaters.

    I disagree.

    In the first place, charities shouldn’t make money, therefore none of them would pay income taxes. I had a relative who made huge amounts of money as a Wall Street deal maker, and from 1880 on, gave almost all of it away anonymously to fund libraries in New York State and other institutions. Since he didn’t pay much in taxes in those days, he didn’t do it to get tax deductions; he did it because he believed in public libraries at a time where many libraries were private, available only to members.

    Henry Frick does have his name on the building, but he didn’t give his magnificent collection to the public for tax reasons but to enable it to enjoy what he was lucky enough to have enjoyed, and he left it well enough endowed that, properly managed, it could afford to pay property taxes indefinitely. It’s all a question of perception and what we are used to. And I truly believe that if we get taxes out of charity, we’ll be more likely to put charity back into it. We might get rid of some of the cynicism too.

    Lastly, if I don’t want junk mail, why should it be incumbant upon me to stop it. I’d prefer to continue to punish the sender, and have him go on paying to send it. It takes me no time to put the stuff out with the newspapers and take it to the dump to be recycled.

    Incidentally, a trick to annoy those unwanted telephone callers I learned about which drives them nuts is to pick up the telephone and say, “One minute please, I’ll be right with you.” Then leave them hanging.

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