Sunday, October 11, 2009


Several years ago, when I was an editor for a magazine, a photographer who worked there gave me an old-fashioned, oversized mailbox that he had spray-painted gray for a photo shoot that had accompanied a column I wrote. It's the type of mailbox you attach to a stake in the ground, and it came complete with a red flag for the mail carrier to raise when making a delivery.

I thought it would be nice to attach the mailbox to my house, even though that wasn't its intended purpose, so I drilled a few holes in its side and screwed the box into the shingles to the left of the top step of my front stoop.

The problem is that, when a great deal of mail is stuffed into the box, the screws sometime pull away from the house and the box falls onto the concrete step below.

This is particularly annoying to me when unsolicited mail is the culprit, so I have no fondness for all of those tokens sent by charities in an effort to entice you to contribute, including greeting cards and personalized mailing labels.

A reader from Calgary, Alberta, probably has a different kind of mailbox, but has the same kind of question: If an unsolicited charity sends you "a nice packet" of personalized address labels to convince you to donate, but you don't donate, is it legitimate to keep and use the labels? Or, he asks, "Do you have to throw them in the trash?"

Given their tendency to overtax my mailbox, I wouldn't use the word "nice" to describe any of these unsolicited items. Clearly, however, my reader has no such aversion and would like to use the labels, if he can do so without stepping over the ethical line.

"Part of me says that, whether or not I donate, the company would figure this into their marketing strategy," he writes. "The other part of me says, `Donate or deep-six it.'"

The charitable organization sending those lovely labels obviously would appreciate his donating if he's going to use them, but he's under no obligation to do so. Obligations are assumed through mutual consent, not imposed, and there's no such agreement here. The labels came unsolicited and without any way to return them if he chooses not to donate. Moreover, the charity that sent the labels, like most such charities, in no way suggests that a donation is essential to keep the labels. They are a gift _ a gift made in the hope of prompting a gift in return, but nonetheless a gift.

Some such labels bear an inscription implying that the sender has given to the charity, which would send an insincere message if used by a non-donor. That's not the case here, however. The labels simply feature his name and address.

When I told my reader that it is perfectly OK for him to use the labels, whether or not he donates, he added an extra question: "What do you do, if I might ask?"

Sorry, I have no Solomonic solution to offer.

"I can't stand those labels and never use them," I told him, "so I throw them out whether I donate to the charity or not."

The right thing for him to do is to use the labels if he wants to and to donate to whatever charities he finds worthy. The two have nothing to do with each other, whether or not the charity in question wants him to think so.

c.2009 The New York Times Syndicate (Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate)

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Heck, I've had charities send me a stamp, a nickel, a dime - even a dollar bill. You can bet I don't throw them away, whether or not I contribute. I never contribute out of guilt anymore, but only because I believe in the cause.

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