August Update: Convincing Charities to stop sending me paper

by Sep 5, 2019

At the beginning of August I put a call out for charities that I donate money to to allow me to tell them to stop sending me paper things through the mail.

The basic idea: I already have a relationship with them. I get the info I need from them online (or I should!). I send them money to help them solve the problems of the world I want to see solved, not to see them spend that money on me producing pieces of paper that they then spend money with the US Post Office mailing to me, which I immediately toss into the blue recycling bin unopened and unread and send off to be recycled.

It’s a waste of the organization’s budget. It’s bad ecologically: that’s a lot of former trees being hauled around on trucks eating fossil fuels and spewing pollution. Paper production isn’t exactly the best thing for water quality around paper production plants, either.

I’m not asking them to not contact me. They have my email address and already use it. Most of what I get on paper is a duplicate of what I see online already. What I want is to have the option to opt out of all paper mailings so they stop spending money on something I’m going to trash unread.

The initial response to that mailing was moderate. I heard from some of you who agreed with me and wished it would happen. It got shared by some of you, but not as many as I’d hoped. I heard back from the social media people at two of my supported organizations saying they were passing the message along, but no follow up beyond that. Clearly, not exactly an enthusiastic start.

So here is my one month update. I started tracking every piece of I got in the mail, and I’ll continue that and report on it every few months. The results one month in aren’t pretty. I’m excluding transactional emails like the neccesary-for-taxes thanks for donating letters.

Broadly speaking, the pieces of paper I see seem to be one of three types:

  • Membership Renewals: Some organizations (hello, ACLU) try to time out my membership after 12 months, ignoring that I’ve donated to them twice more in the meantime, and start sending me increasingly strident PLEASE RENEW emails and paper mails. Ya know, in my mind if I sent you money in March, I shouldn’t be getting these renewal notices in August. Just saying.
  • Donation Requests: I get a fairly steady stream of donation requests for more money, sometimes just for general donation requests, but some organizations put out special calls for specific needs — International Bird Rescue, for instance, had a huge influx of birds when a nesting tree in Oakland collapsed and needed help paying for their care; Audubon does an annual special program to help pay for protection of Tri-Colored Blackbirds. Some of those are legitimate and often unplanned expenses. Some of them are simply excuses to ask for more money. I will note for the record that I did get a donation request from IBC — via email — and did send them money.
  • Status updates: some organizations (like the Nature Conservancy magazine) send paper showing what good things they’re doing with my money. It’s great to see progress, but I don’t want them spending my donation to show me what good people they are. They should do that online. Spend money fixing the problems they’re trying to fix.

I put these pieces of paper I got into three categories:

  • Letters and Postcards: a regular letter or a postcard. Based on my history doing this, I’ve assigned a cost of $2.50 to each one to cover staff costs producing, printing costs and postage costs.
  • Magazines and Newsletters: Some organizations send out magazines that explain what a great job they’re doing and what challenges lie ahead (so please send us more money). Nature Conservancy is one of these. I’ve assigned a cost of $5.00 to the cost of producing, printing and mailing one of these.
  • Calendars: A couple of organizations issue an annual calendar as a thank you to members. That’s nice, except I don’t want it and I don’t want them spending money on sending it to me for me to recycle. These are expensive products, so I’ve assigned a cost of $10.00 for each one I receive. Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology, I’m looking at you here: it’s really nice, but I want that money spent on problems, not my blue bin.

A lot of my ranting, if it’s not clear, is to try to raise awareness with these organizations that it’s time for them to figure out how to be online first, and on request, online only. Many of them have done a pretty good job of the former. They’re all doing poorly on the second.

Why does this matter? Let’s take a look at my August blue recycling bin.

Five of the nine organizations I donated to so far in 2019 sent me at least one piece of paper in August. From those five groups I got 11 separate mailings. That included 8 letters, 2 magazines and a calendar. The five organizations, sorted by money wasted this month:

  • Nature Conservancy “wins” this month, sending me three different letters and a magazine. That means they spent over 5% of my 2019 donation to them sending me stuff either asking for more money, or explaining what a great organization they are and why I should send them more money. That percentage is high enough to make me consider reducing of stopping my donations to them if this doesn’t change. My estimated cost for this: $12.50
  • Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology sent me their annual calendar. The bad news: they spent 10% of what I’ve donated to them this year sending me something I immediately recycled. The good news: I know this is an annual goodie that comes once a year. But still, that’s a huge chunk of the money I gave them wasted that could be put to better use if I had an opt out.
  • ACLU also wasted $10.00 on me in August, in part because of their membership renewal pleas even though I’d sent in a donation within the last six months (hint: if I’m donating 2-3 times a year, just reset the renewal date. This is really annoying. I also got an update newsletter from the along with two different PLEASE RENEW letters.

So, in one month, three organizations spent > 5% of my donated money mailing me pieces of paper I don’t want and don’t need. One of those crossed 10% of my donated money. Those numbers don’t make me want to give them more money.

The other two organizations I got paper from were Audubon (national), two envelopes ($5.00), and the Marine Mammal Center, one ($2.50). Both are well under 5% of my donated money, but I’m sad it’s not 0%.

I am not making any changes on funding decisions until I have six months of data, but to be blunt, for a couple of these organizations, it’s not off to a great start. And just a reminder, I’m not asking them to stop using paper in their campaigns: I’m asking, as a donator, the ability to opt out if I want. I simply want the ability to tell them to stop spending money on something I know is wasted money that can be used for other purposes — like what they’re asking me money for.

I’m honestly quite disappointed that in one month, $40.00 of the money I donated to these organizations was wasted sending me things that all in one way or another were nothing more than asking me for more money. If you hadn’t spent that $40, maybe you wouldn’t need to ask quite so hard.

I’ll check back in after another month or two with another update. In the meantime, if you are part of an organization, rattle some cages with the right teams to encourage them to adopt this opt-out opportunity. If you share my concern about how organizations you donate to are wasting their money attempting to get you to send them more money, share my posts with them.

I want to stop having organizations spending money, killing trees and belching diesel fumes across the country to send me stuff I can easily tell them I don’t want, if only they’d let me. That money needs to be spent on their causes, not on failed fundraising attempts that I’m ignoring because I’m already getting them via their online channels.