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Sunday, March 14, 2010

THE RIGHT THING: WHAT'S IN A (RENTED) NAME?

Making donations to charitable organizations continues to be a terrific way to support efforts that you applaud and groups whose values you share.

It's never been easier to do so safely, thanks to such Web sites as www.charitynavigator.org and www.guidestar.org, the latter of which provides free access to a not-for-profit's 990 form. These sites enable the public to make informed decisions about which organizations to support based on how they use their money.

But how far should a charity be able to go in using your name, once you've donated to them?

That's what is bothering one of my readers in Columbus, Ohio.

Because people have made a contribution, he writes, "is the charity right in `renting' or selling their donor list to all comers?"

It's a common practice in direct-mail marketing for organizations to rent the names of customers - or, in the case of not-for-profits, supporters - as an additional revenue source.

My reader reports that a close personal friend of his, a person "of modest means," made a small contribution to a well-respected charity. Several months later solicitations from numerous other charities began to pour in, many enclosing address labels, cards or notepads as incentives to get his friend to donate to them as well.

"Some even had nickels and dimes attached," my reader writes. "All of them wanted donations."

Some days multiple solicitations arrived in his friend's mailbox.

My reader himself has faced similar circumstances, he reports. After making an annual contribution to his local PBS television station for many years, he began receiving solicitations for an affinity credit card. He figured out that these offers originated from his donor record for the PBS affiliate.

How did he do that? It's often possible to tell who is renting your name by checking exactly how your name and address appear on the label sent by the new charity. An inconsistency or quirk, such as a middle initial that you rarely use but did give to one charity, is a good tip-off: If it appears on both labels, chances are that one was the source of the other. Some people use slightly different forms of their names with each donation specifically to be able to tell if their names are being rented.

My reader wrote to his station to register his displeasure and to tell the management that no more contributions would be forthcoming. Since then, whenever he makes a contribution to a charity, he includes a request that his name not be rented to other charities. If the charity doesn't comply, he warns, no further contributions will be made.

"I don't contribute just for the tax benefit," my reader writes. "I try to find a need that will make a difference in a person's struggle to overcome an adversity beyond their control, fund groups sending supplies to our overseas soldiers and support charities without high-paid staff and fancy facilities."

He believes that a charity which rents its donor list is abusing its benefactors to generate additional revenue.

I applaud my reader on being clear, whenever he makes a donation, that he does not want his name rented out. Once he makes this request in writing, his wishes should be honored by any charity willing to take his money.

Absent such a request, however, I don't agree that it's unethical for a charity to rent out its contributors' names as an additional source of revenue. Working for a good cause, it seems a sign of good management to tap any source of additional revenue that may help the cause. After all, while solicitations can be a nuisance, they do no real harm to the recipient, while the money gained by renting the names can be turned to good ends.

If charities intend to rent out donor names, however, the right thing for them to do is to let potential donors know about it and give them the chance to opt out when they are making their contribution.

As for those receiving unwanted solicitations, remember that asking for money is not the same as getting it. No matter how worthy the cause may be, there is no ethical obligation for someone receiving a solicitation to respond with a check. If the recipient doesn't have the funds, values other causes more highly or simply doesn't feel like donating, he or she can toss the solicitation without reservation.

c.2010 The New York Times Syndicate (Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate)

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