Sunday, June 12, 2022

Should charities spend so much on unsolicited mailings?

Are the charitable donations you make to various organizations going toward the work that organization sets as its mission or do they go to pay for marketing efforts to elicit more donations? That’s essentially what a reader whom we’re calling Iris wants to know.

Iris is among the millions of Americans who donate to charity every year. She donates small amounts to several different charities whose work she supports. But she’s noticed lately that more and more charities are sending her solicitations that include everything from customized return address labels and notepads to pocket calculators and embossed canvas bags. “These are not thank you items,” wrote Iris. “They’re sending these before I contribute another dime.”

Iris uses some of the stuff sent to her even if she doesn’t contribute. But she’s concerned that the charities to whom she does contribute do similar mailings. “I feel like my dollars are going to mailings rather than good work,” she wrote.

“Is it wrong for charities to spend so much money on mailings to try to raise money?” Iris asked.

There is nothing wrong with charities sending out solicitations for donations. In an effort to find new donors, they employ various techniques. Iris was clear in her email to me that she hates unsolicited phone calls from charitable organizations even more than the mailings she receives. The numerous mailings Iris and others receive may annoy them, but reaching out to prospective donors using various methods is often necessary if a charity wants to stay afloat.

The cost of the marketing efforts and other overhead should not, however, be so much that they outweigh the funds spent directly on whatever work the charity is set up to do. Websites like Charity Navigator ( analyze the spending of many charities so donors can get a sense of what percentage of donations gets spent on what.

Nevertheless, Iris raises a good question about whether charities should spend so much soliciting donations from people who don’t want to receive the solicitations partly because they would rather the money go to the work of the charity.

Iris may be receiving many mailings because she donates to several different charities rather than choosing fewer to which she gives larger donations. If Iris wants to make sure that the charities she donates to don’t sell her name to other charities for them to use in soliciting donations from her, she can check to make sure that her chosen charities assure donors that their names will not be shared. (Charity Navigator includes this information in its assessments.)

Iris can also choose to give anonymously or to take advantage of any charities that allow her to check a box indicating she doesn’t want her information shared.

While the Data and Marketing Association (DMA) lets people put their name or email on a no unsolicited mail list (, it’s not a guarantee that every charitable organization will stop sending mailings.

That Iris continues to contribute to causes she deems to be worthy strikes me as a good thing. I’m hopeful she and others will continue to do so. But the right thing for Iris or others in her situation to do is to take as much control of how many unsolicited mailings they receive by letting the charities know that they would simply prefer the charity not to spend the money on solicitation mailings.

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 and director of the communications program at Harvard's Kennedy School. He is also the administrator of, a blog focused on ethical issues.

Do you have ethical questions that you need to have answered? Send them to

Follow him on Twitter @jseglin.


No comments: