Sunday, July 15, 2007


Like many of us, Beverly Smith of Lake Forest, Calif., frequently receives mailing labels, greeting cards and other token gifts from charitable organizations along with requests for donations. She resents attempts to shame her into giving, she says, and most of the time she dumps the gift because she didn't request it and doesn't want it.

"But sometimes," she admits, "the greeting cards are nice and tempting to use, even though I have no desire to support the charity."

What's the right thing to do? If you use the labels, the cards or the other gifts, are you obligated to give a donation to the organization?

Post your thoughts here by clicking on "comments" or "post a comment" below. Please include your name, hometown, and state, province, or country. Readers' comments may appear in an upcoming column. Or e-mail your comments to me at

Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of The Right Thing: Conscience, Profit and Personal Responsibility in Today's Business (Smith Kerr, 2006), is an associate professor at Emerson College in Boston, where he teaches writing and ethics. He is also the administrator of The Right Thing, a Web log focused on ethical issues.

Do you have ethical questions that you need answered? Send them to or to "The Right Thing," The New York Times Syndicate, 500 Seventh Avenue, 8th floor, New York, NY 10018. Please remember to tell me who you are, where you're from, as well as where you read the column.


Anonymous said...

Unsolicited junk is a gift.

Use it or toss it.

there is NO ethical dilemma here.

Anonymous said...

The requests she and all of us receive are admittedly unsolicited, so have come unbidden to her house; in effect - have intruded into her private world. We are under no obligation to give cash to these causes, but that's what these causes are attempting to do - play on your conscience by providing small gifts, a legal and entirely ethical attempt, so you will feel obligated to send them money. These organizations hire talented sales people to write these solicitations with the express purpose of playing on your conscience, thereby getting you to part with your money. That's what their job is! When I receive such letters, they usually are tossed into the trash immediately, since I didn't ask for them. If they happen to contain little trinkets or gewgaws that appeal to me, I keep them without feeling the slightest bit of remorse. Some people just are setups for these little schemes, since they have such overly developed and sensitive consciences. Keep what you want when something comes to you unbidden.

Charlie Seng
Lancaster, S.C.

Anonymous said...

Whether one perceives the trinket, address labels, whatever as a gift, a bribe, a thank you in advance, or a means of shaming him/her into making a contribution, one is absolutely under no obligation not to use the item unless he/she does contribute. The non-profit organization is, after all, imposing on the recipient’s time just to open the envelope and consider the cause along with all the others out there. Using proven marketing strategies, these organizations are “gambling” that there will be a bigger payoff to them because of the gifts, and I doubt that they really care whether or not contributors or non-contributors actually use them.

Phil Clutts, Harrisburg, NC

Anonymous said...

These charities like you to use the free gifts (i.e. labels and cards) to send to friends and relatives even if you don't donate. It still gives the impression that this is a charity of your choice, and may influence these people to investigate and perhaps contribute also. If it is a charity you don't want to be associated with, toss the gift.

Marion Bruening, SLC, UT
online reader

Anonymous said...

I consider them as 'free samples' as it would be too expensive to return them. However, to asuage your guilt, perhaps you could email them and have them remove you from their mailing list.

M. Chambers
Lancaster, WI

Anonymous said...

Thank you for your intelligent column. I'd like to share that the unsolicited greeting cards that I receive, I donate to Salvation Army or Goodwill. Helps a few people that way!

Sallie Pearlman
Orange, California
The Orange County Register

Anonymous said...

No you are not obligated to give to an organization who sends you "stuff". Long ago I started in earnest to campaign to stop "junk" mail. If I receive unsolicited cards, labels, etc. I return them to the sender in their "prepaid" envelope with a note to remove me from their mailing list. Do this once or twice and they get the message.

Deanne Dillenbeck
Cypress, CA
Orange County Register

Anonymous said...

I tried everything to stop organizations from sending me labels. I returned them, unopened, & wrote on the envelope "Refused, unsolicited merchandise, stop sending". That didn't work... If there was a phone #, I called it & asked to be removed from the list. I even sent back the card that asks for your donation & wrote across that. Believe me, I tried it all. I have finally given up. I absolutely will not send them money, I don't care what organization it is, I made that mistake once and I will never do it again...I sent them a check and wrote a note saying "this is the last check you will ever get from me, do not ever send me anything again". Well, that didn't work either. So now, I use the labels rather than throw them away, but I never send money nor will I ever send money.


Anonymous said...

Heck, no! The charity or organization which sent the address labels and such did not receive a request from me, so I owe them nothing. However, I receive way too many address labels to ever use, so I cut the cute pictures off the sheet, and donate them to a school. The teachers (who often spend hundreds of personal dollars each year on their students) love the free miniature stickers! So the charity or organization IS helping anyway!

Alma Williams
Fullerton, CA

Anonymous said...

Worse than the "free" gifts are the post paid return envelopes. I got onto their mailing lists after I had given MY charity money. I know that my giving has gone to the charities I want. If they sell my name, that then is their problem.
I have a friend who needs money, so I save up the envelopes, and the gifts, and give them to her. I even give her my address labels, as she cuts off the decorative part and tosses my name. She then passes the labels and stickers to her grandchildren who love the stickers. So everyone is happy. I know my charitable giving goes to my chosen charities, so I have no guilt about not sending the new ones money. I can't support everyone. I give to cancer research, native American causes, and the VFW, so that pretty much covers it all.

Anonymous said...

The money sent to "guilt" you into accepting these free gifts could be better spent within the organization. I would guess enough people are "guilted" into sending something to make it worth it, OR they could take a huge tax deduction for operating expenses. Donate to whom you wish to donate to; don't let anyone guilt or shame you into anything else. If you support the cause, by all means, use the gifts, donate; your choice.

The publicity on the item should offset any funds not sent. I have several years worth of address labels with advertising, notecards with advertising...gee, all that free advertising must offset the donation they did not get from me.

I donate to my choice of causes/issues, not theirs.

(we do not have your column in the local papers; I read it online.)

Anonymous said...

I also have received labels and have used them without donating to the charity for the following four reasons.

1. The labels were unsolicited, in others words, I did not ask for them and I do not like to be pressured in giving.

2. Returning them would be of no value to the sender and would cost me money.

3. Destroying them would be a waste.

4. Finally and maybe most importantly, by using them I am giving publicity to the charity since most of them have a logo identifying the organization. That has value for the organization. (Of course if I disapproved of the organization, I would toss them.)

The only thing that bothers me with my reasoning and my actions is that I could be giving the false impression to the recipients of my mailings that I am financially supporting the organization which I am not.

Emmanuel Tchividjian
New York, NY

Anonymous said...

I have a simple policy: I collect all the requests for $ that I find compelling and consider them all in one sitting at the end of the year.

I budget out how much I will give in total and then divide up the money.

Personally, I generally give most to local organizations and then smaller amounts to national ones.

I find that this policy makes it easy to say no to solicitations over the phone ("if you send me information, I'll consider it at the end of the year") and inquires that come by snail mail. There is no guilt in saying maybe and then being careful and thoughtful about where you want your limited resources to go.

The conundrum comes from the many friends who ask for sponsorships for bike rides, walks for hunger or breast cancer research, etc throughout the year. I say yes to many of these if I support the cause and want to help my friend.