The Vicious Cycle of Giving

I was in Costco and they were putting out Christmas merchandise. In September. Such is life, but it reminded me that we are heading into the season of giving, and I have something to say to all the worthy organizations that need our help.

For my birthday last year, my daughter made a donation to Feeding America in my honor. Their website shows some pretty impressive statistics. “For every dollar donated, Feeding America secures and distributes 9 meals on behalf of food banks.” They claim to be a Better Business Bureau accredited charity, and a “Four Star” charity according to Charity Navigator. I was touched that my daughter did this on my behalf, and proud of her for thinking of others when she thought of me.

And then the phone calls started. Every night. We have VOIP (voice over internet protocol) phone service, which means when the phone rings, the caller’s name pops up on my TV as well as on the caller ID. Night after night, the same name called. It was, as you may have guessed, someone from Feeding America, asking for my daughter, and looking for another donation. This lasted for several weeks before they turned to the U.S. Mail service. The mail still comes regularly, and now, a couple of months before my birthday rolls around again, the phone calls have started up again.

I don’t mean to pick on this particular charity. They are not alone in their harassment. My son was born six weeks premature and I decided to volunteer with the March of Dimes because of their work with preemies. The first few years of my son’s life, I walked my neighborhood, handing out envelopes seeking donations from my neighbors. I stopped after a few years because I wasn’t comfortable with the way the organization kept after me to do more, to give more. If my neighbors weren’t making donations, it was suggested that perhaps I wanted to make up that shortfall. I did not.

I told them why I stopped, in hopes that they would stop. My son is 29 years old. I am still getting phone calls and letters asking for my help from the March of Dimes, more than a quarter of a century after I complained about the harassment.

My son and I are both University of South Florida alums which means, you guessed it, twice as many phone calls soliciting us for money. To add insult to injury, he hasn’t lived at home in many years. On the somewhat dubious bright side, when I’ve asked, I’ve been told the person calling is not paid staff but rather a student volunteer.

NPR? Sends out occasional emails and letters seeking donations. PBS does the same, not to mention their pledge weeks – but at least I can change the channel. That seems reasonable to me.

This list is by no means complete. And let me also add, in case you were wondering, that I am not a big money donor by any means. I’m a librarian – I don’t make much so I don’t give much. I hate to say it but almost every charity I’ve ever made a donation to has left me feeling like my $20 or $50 or $100 has simply been used to pay staff to solicit even more money from me. I know that may not be true, but it feels true.

I am happy to say that there are exceptions. I’ve made many donations over the years to the Red Cross, and never got anything other than a thank you. Same with Doctors Without Borders, the PanMass Challenge and those emergency funds that I’ve texted donations to, like Hurricane Sandy relief. I think St. Jude’s Childrens’ Hospital only sends one or two letters a year looking for money as does a local charity, Boca Helping Hands. That seems reasonable to me. United Way does an annual presentation at my place of employment that I can attend if I want, and occasionally sends a letter about some immediate need in my community. And by occasionally I mean that’s happened a couple of times in all the years I’ve been giving to them.

I’ve always abided by Winston Churchill’s wise words, “We make a living by what we get. We make a life by what we give.” I understand that charities run on donations. I know that when the economy tanked several years ago that charitable organizations took a big hit. But I don’t think soliciting money should feel like harassment, and most of the time it does. Calling people night after night is just way beyond the bounds of common sense and decency. Sending letters weekly or even monthly is irksome to me, all the paper going into the trash (or even the recycling bin) is just a waste of resources.

I don’t claim to know what the answer is. I won’t stop making donations, but I do stop making them to organizations that I feel are squandering their limited resources. If I contribute $25 and in return, get dozens of phone calls and several letters, I feel like I’ve completely wasted my money. I don’t make donations so that the organizations I donate to can use my money to harass me.

I’d love to know how other people feel about this, even better, how to handle this. Please feel free to share you thoughts in the comments below, or by email if you don’t wish to make your comments public.

4 Responses to The Vicious Cycle of Giving

  1. MaryC says:

    We’ve informed callers seeking donations that we do not respond to phone solicitations, even if it’s an organization we support. I recently received a mailing from CARE that allows one to state how often one wants to be contacted – I wish all organizations would do the same.

  2. Our worst one seems to be a particular charity pick up in our area. It’s an automated call that will call back over and over and over until you pick up and listen to the recording to officially opt out. I actually love the charity pick ups – all I have to do is fill a box and put it by the curb on the designated day. This one, though, didn’t even bother to pick up when I did schedule a day! I still have to endure the automated calls but I’ve chosen to donate through another pick up ever since.

    As for the others, there doesn’t seem to be any good solution except to continue to ask not to be contacted when/if we opt not to give. As with your area, we do have some local ones that are much better about not being pushy.

  3. Jan Zahrly says:

    I saved this email and am finally getting back to you, after putting a pound of paper into the recycle box after the mail came today. This pleading has gotten out of control and it is up to you and me to change the world, two people at a time. I keep a tiny notebook and list the groups that have harassed me by telephone (I never give my telephone number out to soliciters). I add groups to that notebook when I receive countless slick pages from them. I also check Charity Navigator which tells me which charities are not transparent with their funds and who spend a grand amount on fundraising or executive pay. Every couple of months I update my little booklet. New charities might go into my little book (with their Charity Navigator rating) but most of the time, charities are marked out. Well, really I used to put the DO NOT DONATE list at the front of my notebook but those few pages were soon filled so now I list the DO NOT DONATE from the back forward. I realize that I can keep track of this now that I am retired. And I know you will be retired someday, too, with more time. Like you, I never had a lot of money so I view my charitable giving carefully, no wasted money on my part, if I can help it. I have another way to keep track of professional fund raisers — or if I am skeptical or unsure, I use my middle name or my first two initials. If it matters, I am “Jan.” And I am such a pushy broad that I only give once to groups who insist on addressing me as Mrs. or Ms. Zahrly. My name is Jan and I do not need a title. It is just another way to separate the chaff from the wheat. Keep up the good work – I love your daily posts and sometimes do not get around to them until the next day but I always check them. Sorry I did not get back to you earlier — I hope you harp on this again – one person at a time. Thanks for writing about this abusive action. Keep track of the abusers. peace, janz

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