Friday, June 21, 2013

How Do I Get Off Those Junk Mail Lists?

Direct Mail's Not-So-Dirty Little Secrets

Getting tired of getting letter after letter from charities and politicians begging for money from you?  There's an easy way to stop the fund-raising letters that clog up your trash can week after week.  STOP DONATING!

That seems awfully harsh doesn't it?  Well it is, and as a semi-professional fund-raiser myself, I do not recommend it.  Everybody should be giving something to charity, to their church or to causes they believe in.  It's how communities address important problems and issues and solve them.  It's how we take care of abused animals and children, provide shelter for battered women and feed the poor.  It's how we support people we want to elect to be our representatives in government.

So what's a bunch of kind-hearted schmucks like you and me to do?   In an ideal world, people would send out straightforward fund-raising letters. We'd look at the cause and decide if it was something we wanted to support and mail them a check. The problem is, that kind of letter doesn't make a lot of money.

I used to write them, I know.  I tried to write honest, straight-forward appeal letters, but I'm afraid I wasn't very effective.  I simply stated the case, what we needed money for and why.  I rebelled at "pandering" and hand-wringing and playing upon the guilt thing with people.  Some of those appeals actually cost more in printing and postage than we got back in donations.

The ones that work are the ones with sad-eyed starving orphans, wounded dolphins and portrayals of evil politicians scheming to steal your food, starve your grandma or take away your guns.  These things are pandering of the first order.  They're full of disturbing images, hand-wringing and laced with guilt. Many charities make quite a lot of money on these direct mail campaigns.  They are easy for the charity and effective in that they raise significant dollars.  Many small charities use them because they are less expensive than hiring a fund-raising staff and can raise millions if you can proved them with a few heart-wrenching photographs and some heart-breaking stories. 

You should know, however that money raised via these fund-raising "professionals" only yields about 40% or less back to the cause. This type of fund-raising is expensive.  In most cases 60% or more of the "take" is eaten up in mailing, printing and consultant fees.  It is not uncommon for the first two or three campaigns to cost more than they bring in.

So if you want to donate 35 cents out of every dollar you send to a charity, simply tuck a check into the response envelope and your guilt may be assuaged in short order.  There is a premium for giving in this way, but it involves very little work and can yield big returns to the charity.  The wildlife refuge you support may get back a million dollars from this campaign out of the 2.5 million that was donated.  The flip side of that coin is that it is unlikely the refuge would ever have raised that kind of money any other way without an expensive development program that would distract from the work being done by the charity.

If you have a moral objection to paying the 60% tithe to the direct mailer, you can do this.  Write a check to the charity, look up their address, put the money in your own envelope with your own stamp and send it directly to them.  Don't mention the direct mail campaign.  Mark the check "for your work".  If you identify yourself as responding to the direct mail campaign, the charity is obligated under contract to forward that check to the bank account where the direct mailer is collecting donations where it will incur the mailer's fees just as if you'd sent it in the response envelope.

If you'd like to support the charity, but don't want to get all those horrific sad letters take the time to write a heartfelt letter to the charity explaining that you wish to be removed from their mailing list and to donate a fixed amount directly to the charity.  Ask to be sent a monthly reminder from the charity directly or set up some sort of automatic contribution through your own bank account.  The charity will be happy to send your name to the direct mailer for removal from the list.

Choose a handful of charities you like to contribute to and repeat this process.  They will then receive 100% of your contribution and you can rest assured your favorite charities are receiving regular support from you. You would be the kind of donor charities dream about.

You can't blame a small charity that needs a million dollars a year in operating funds for choosing a method that generates that much money over the prospect of slowly starving while trying to do it on their own.

One last note.  Occasionally you'll see someone griping about direct mail appeals on Facebook or somewhere and suggesting you send an angry letter in the response envelope.  This does no good, zero, zip, nada!  Sending stuff back in the response envelope costs the charity that hired the direct mail company a lot of postage.  The charity will never know about what you did.  All they will know is that they didn't do as well on this mailing and will probably be encouraged to buy another donor list from the company.

And THAT'S how you wind up on getting so many appeal letters.  The direct mail company sells one client's lists to its other clients.  The good news is that if you never respond to a direct mailing, you eventually get taken off the lists.  It takes years, but eventually they give up wasting their time sending you stuff. 

Should direct mail companies be done away with?  I have to say that, even as expensive as they are, NO.  Too many small charities doing very good work depend absolutely on them.  If you just want more of your money to go to the charity you love, then send it to them. Don't wait for an envelope with a starving puppy on it.  Send $5 a month to the ASPCA or Tyler Rescue Ministries or Azleway Boys Ranch or Tiger Creek Wildlife Refuge, Boys and Girls Club, your local food bank or any other charity you care about.  Specify that you don't want to be on a mailing list and especially don't want to have your name sent to a direct mailer.  It will save the charity a lot of postage over the years and they'll get all of your contribution instead of just a fraction of it.

Give smart!

Tom King
(c) 2013


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. Direct mail Sending stuff back in the response envelope costs the charity that hired the direct mail company a lot of postage

  3. This is true. I didn't remove this comment (which links to your direct mail company) because this deserves an answer. It DOES cost the charity when you do that. You are not punishing the direct mail company at all. The direct mail company's job is to keep flogging the mail until enough people respond to make enough to keep the client engaged. It's expensive for the charity, but can be quite lucrative. The one thing most charities don't realize is that the relatively low return on investment (at least to the government's way of thinking) will wreck opportunities for grants and large donations except by those really committed to the cause who understand why charities resort to direct mail. There are lots of reasons a small but expensive-to-run charity like an animal sanctuary or children's home goes to direct mail, not the least of which is that it provides a lot of money for relatively little staff time. It's costly to get going. You'll likely lose money the first few times, but if you can create a sad story and get enough people on your list who respond to this approach, you can make millions. No other fund-raising tool is quite that effective, barring the hiring of a full time professional development department. And THAT can be really really expensive.

  4. Also, a successful direct mail campaign that nets you a 35% return may actually give you hundreds of thousands in cash from a single mailing, but it can also get you blacklisted on sites like Charity Navigator which rate charities on their "stewardship". Many small charities are poorly rated because they use direct mail, even though without direct mail the charity would go broke in months. It doesn't mean they're a bad charity. It just means that the economy or the area in which they are doing their good deeds can't support them. In 2009, federal funding for faith-based charities withered away almost overnight. Many small charities have no place else to go. The best way to use direct mail is as a way to find regular donors and try to wean off direct mail as much as possible and find other resources. As a donor, the best way to help AND stop getting junk mail is to do your due diligence, look up the charity and send money directly to them. Become a regular donor so they don't have to rely on sad-eyed children and starving tigers.