Should you stop giving to a charity because it sends you unsolicited gifts?
That’s a question asked by a reader we’re calling Melvin. Melvin regularly gives to a charity. He’s done so for at least a decade. But over the past year, Melvin started receiving gifts such as tote bags in mailings soliciting more donations to the group. Melvin points out that the tote bag was not a thank you gift, but a gift in anticipation of another donation.
“I don’t give to get a tote bag,” wrote Melvin. “I like the work they do.”
Melvin wrote that it’s not just this, however, that concerned him. He would like to believe that the money he donates gets used to support the work the group does, not to pay for unsolicited gifts such as tote bags or other items that are used to entice donations. “I’d rather they use the money to do their work,” wrote Melvin.
Melvin is wondering whether he should find a different group to support that doesn’t spend money on such gifts. He wondered if it is wrong to stop donating to a group whose work he admires and has supported for years because of a practice he finds objectionable.
If it’s the tote bag type gift that chiefly bothers Melvin, he could ask to be taken off the mailing list for the charity so he no longer receives solicitations. He can still donate to the charity but he’ll have to do so without the reminders that come in the mail. And it’s unlikely that the charity will stop sending tote bags to everyone.
Melvin could choose to find another charity that gives similar work and give to it instead, but there’s no guarantee that any new recipient might not engage in the same sort of preemptive gift-giving to prospective donors.
The right thing is for Melvin to decide if he supports the work of this charity enough to want to help. If he does and he would like to continue giving, he can check out how much of his donation actually goes to the work being done by looking at a site like www.CharityNavigator.org, which provides an analysis of a charity’s accountability and finance, culture and community, leadership and adaptability, and impact and results. If he wants to get into more financial specifics, he can also use the website www.guidestar.org to look up the Form 990 financial form his charity fills out each year and files with the Internal Revenue Service, but these filings typically lag a couple of years before becoming available on the GuideStar site.
Good for Melvin for wanting to support a group that does work he admires and for wanting to try to make sure his dollars get used wisely. If the charity measures up in terms of financial responsibility, then it would be good to think Melvin would keep giving and not let the unsolicited tote bag turn him off.
He might even decide to start using the tote bag when he does his grocery shopping. A fellow shopper might see the charity’s logo, strike up a conversation with Melvin, and consider donating as well.
Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of "The Simple Art of Business Etiquette: How to Rise to the Top by Playing Nice," is a senior lecturer in public policy, emeritus, at Harvard's Kennedy School. He is also the administrator of www.jeffreyseglin.com, a blog focused on ethical issues.
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