Charities: Let me tell you to stop wasting paper and postage on me.

by Aug 5, 2019

This is an open letter to the charities that I donate money to every year.

Please let me help you use your funds more effectively: allow me to tell you to stop sending me paper in the postal mail. I get your donation asks via email. The ones I get on pieces of paper duplicate all of that. What do I do? I recycle them, 95% of the time unopened.

They are a complete and utter waste of your money that should be going to your primary cause. As a member, I don’t want you spending money on fundraising initiatives that aren’t going to help. I know that sending me pieces of paper is a waste of money. Let me tell you that.

Note that I am not suggesting you stop sending me donation asks. You already do that via e-mail and I see those and sometimes I respond.

Note that I am not suggesting you stop doing fundraising, either online or by paper mail. I realize for others it’s a useful tool, especially reaching out to potential members.

Note also that I’m not suggesting you stop selling your donator lists to all of those other organizations that then send me solicitations for money that I ignore (hello, World Wildlife Federation! Hello, Sierra Club). That’s a revenue stream to you, so whatever. Now, those other organizations should be smart enough to think “hmm. I’ve mailed that person 25 times in the last 3 years and gotten zero. Maybe I should stop mailing them”, but they don’t, and since none of the money they’re wasting is money I gave them, I don’t care. If the World Wildlife Federation wants to believe that that 26th email is going to change my mind, god bless them. (hint: they’re wrong).

What I am asking you is to have a way to, as a member, opt out of receiving pieces of paper from you that you spend money creating and more money mailing to me so I can look at them and toss them in the blue bin unopened.

If you look at the image at the top, I’m picking on the Nature Conservancy. They are one of my favorite organizations (in terms of dollars donated per year, either #2 or #3), and in truth, they’re not close to the worst offender I see in my paper mail stream — that’s clearly the World Wildlife Federation, an organization I’ve never given a dollar to and won’t, because last I looked into their finances, the percentage of funds spent on HQ staff and fundraising was way above what I consider acceptable — they seem to be an organization who’s goal is raising money, not spending it well.

I picked on Nature Conservancy here because (a) I care, and (b) I did happen to get two separate pieces of email from the the same day last week, and that made me go “why am I getting paper mail from these people, anyway?” — and hence this open letter.

I think all of these charitable organizations need to be thinking about the cost of the donation solicitations they send out and whether what they’re doing is rational in today’s increasingly on-line first (and only) world. It is a discussion we’ve had in the committee meetings I chair with the group I volunteer with, although we’re a long way from being ready to eat that particular dog food.

From my days working for a company that used to send out a lot of paper marketing mail (cough apple cough) I feel safe to say each of those paper envelopes shown above probably cost Nature Conservancy at least $2.00 (maybe $2.50) to produce and mail. I’m not including staff time for design because that’ll often be shared time with the online version of the same campaign; but when you think about printing costs, envelope stuffing, postage, staff to handle, sort and haul to the post office, etc, etc $2.00 is a good round number.

And you know what? If I’m sending over [redacted] dollars to an organization every year, and then I start counting up how many pieces of wasted paper I see sent to me that spend part of those dollars, and if I don’t like what that percentage of my money being thrown away in my blue bin, then I’m going to start cutting back how much money that organization gets (perhaps to zero!), and put the money into organizations that spend that money solving the problems they exist for instead.

For environmentally oriented organizations — like most I donate to — I really want them to be more progressive about this because of the ecological impact schlepping around all this paper, plus the environmental problems associated with the trees and the paper manufacturing and the carbon costs of shipping this stuff all over everywhere and — you get the point. The more paper you throw at me, the less I believe you believe in your environmental mission.

Here’s my Ask

Let me opt out of receiving paper from you. Let me help you not waste money I know will have no effect. Direct Mail was never a good option; typical direct mail campaigns popped corks over 2% response rates, and I expect that number has shrunk as paper mail has become the domain of the olds.

If you don’t? I’m starting to track who sends me paper, and how much. Every year, the organizations that send me the most paper that gets tossed in the blue bin will get their donations cut in favor of those that spend the money on their cause.

It is time to realize the day of throwing tons of paper at people hoping for donations is over. It’s horrible environmentalism and it was never very effective in the first place. For people like me, who are already committed and fully engaged online, it’s an absolute waste of the money we send you.

All I need is a way to opt out of it, and for you to honor that opt out. It’s not that hard.

A Quick Digression

Back when I was at Apple building email systems for them, I designed and built the one used for marketing emails to the masses. The original goal was to start using online content and email more to reduce cost and the amount of paper stuff we were emailing to everyone (and, of course, this was Apple, so it was all clay coated high quality paper stock which looks great but isn’t as recyclable). My little project took off, and went from about 10 million emails the first quarter to about 2 billion a quarter by the time I left the project (and Apple). Over about 3 years, Apple shifted heavily to online marketing and was able to kill about 90% of the paper marketing stuff they shipped out every year — and the cost per contact plummeted and response rates flew through the roof. In the middle of my tenure we were showing about $100m in net benefits to the bottom line from the project, which isn’t exactly chicken feed. And this was 15 years ago now, folks. It’s been possible for a long time to stop wasting trees and diesel fuel shipping paper to people who don’t want it.

One project I did as part of this was to create a system to let the Apple Store employees email product sheets to someone rather than hand out printed sheets (more clay coated glossy paper!). That took me three weeks to build, and saved us $8m in printing costs the first year, and removed the 1/3 of the printed material that landfilled because it was obsolete before it was handed out.

So yeah, not only do I want to see all this paper stop appearing in my blue bin, I’ve been involved in projects to make it happen and I’ve seen the results, and they can be really good to the bottom line. (if you are one of those organizations and want to discuss ideas on how to get there, drop me a line and we’ll chat. happy to share knowledge to the good people out there)

My Other Ask

Here’s my other ask, to all of you.

I’m going to be sharing this open letter to the social accounts of the organizations I donate to. I’m actually tempted to do so every time I get a piece of paper from one, but I expect that’ll annoy them after a while — instead, I’m going to count the paper and once a year issue a report on who’s sending me how much, because I’m curious and want objective numbers. And I’ll share those with my social feeds and the companies there.

If you want to see this happen as well, I want you to share links to this piece with the organizations you donate to, too. Let’s get enough copies of this into their marketing teams that they pay attention and do something about it. One lonely voice grumping in the wilderness won’t help, but many voices sharing that grump will.

Or do your own piece and start evangelizing it out as well. I don’t care how we do this or who takes credit for getting it done, what I want is for all this wasted paper to stop happening, both because it’s a waste of money the organization should be spending on solving the real problems, and it’s a nasty environmental problem from cutting down the trees, to producing the paper to the diesel fumes of all of the trucks and trains shipping all of that paper to and fro multiple times, so I can toss it in the blue bin unopened.

My goal is in 3-4 years to be getting zero pieces of paper mail from any organization I donate to. I’m going to do this one of two ways: by convincing organizations to stop sending me paper I don’t want and paying for postage for things that go straight to the blue bin, or by moving the money I donate to other organizations that do. Which do you want to be, the group I’m donating to or the one I used to?

A final thought

What got me thinking about this was not that I got two pieces of paper mail from Nature Conservancy on one day. It’s that the mail that day had seven of these envelopes from six different organizations (yes, including the WWF) and the only piece of paper mail I got was a flyer from a real estate agent who wants to sell my house for me. It made me realize that a huge percentage of the small amount of paper mail I still get are these solicitations.

And I realized it was all a complete waste of everyone’s time and money, and more importantly, the money I’m donating to those organizations — when all we need is an opt out option in our member profiles.

So let’s make that happen.