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The Connected World of Charitable Fundraising

   Apr 01, 2012

You open your mailbox one morning and there inside is a letter from a charity asking for your support. You read it and are inspired to donate, writing out a modest check and popping it in the mail. You feel good knowing that you sacrificed something to support a cause you think is important. But then, within a couple months' time, you notice that your mailbox is no longer large enough for the shocking uptick in letters you are receiving. It was slow at first; a few charity appeals trickled in each week. But now you are getting upwards of five letters a day from charities you have never donated to, and many more you have never even heard of. You wonder, "How did these people get my name and address?"

More than likely you donated to the charity through a for-profit, professional fundraising company it hired to conduct its solicitation campaigns via direct mail. When you respond to such a letter with a donation, your contact information suddenly becomes a hot commodity for fundraising companies and all their other charity clients. You are now on their lists as a prime target for more charity solicitations. Donating in response to charity telemarketing calls often produces the same result. Some charities hire multiple companies to solicit donations, creating the potential for an exponential increase in the number of organizations with which your information may be sold, rented, or exchanged.

What's worse, most of your donation is often used to pay the fundraiser's fees, leaving little to fund the charitable programs you are intending to support. CharityWatch has reviewed many contracts between charities and their fundraisers that guarantee the charity only 10% to 15% of the donations raised on the charity's behalf, and sometimes less. If you receive several appeals each month from the same charities, chances are that most of your donations are being used to do little more than fund more fundraising.

This Diagram (click for full page diagram PDF) provides just a small example of professional fundraising companies and some of their recent charity clients. The charities on this diagram currently receive D or F ratings from CharityWatch for high fundraising costs and for spending too little on the programs donors are intending to support.

Some charities, including some on this diagram, may have privacy policies that prohibit the companies they hire from sharing some or all of your information. If you are concerned about your contact information and donation history being sold, rented, or exchanged, ask the charity you are considering donating to whether its current privacy policy restricts this information from being shared. Simply asking whether or not the charity has a privacy policy is not enough, since its policy could state that it reserves the right to share all of your information.

Some charities use professional fundraisers responsibly by targeting solicitations to a limited number of donors who are more likely to give to their cause, and spending a small amount of money on fundraising relative to the contributions they bring in as a result. You might consider allowing such groups to rent, sell, or exchange your contact information as a means of generating revenue to help fund the programs you care about. But be sure to ask the charity how, if at all, it screens organizations prior to sharing donors' information with them. The charity you donated to may be a highly efficient and responsible fundraiser, but if it shares your information with charities that are neither of these things you may end up receiving lots of unwelcome donation requests. Also make sure the charities with which your information is shared are prevented from re-sharing it without your permission. Finally, tell the charity to share your information only with nonprofits that have causes of interest to you so that you will not end up on the donor lists of organizations you would never consider supporting.

Following a few other basic rules can help prevent you from receiving a flurry of charity solicitations. It helps to make a few, larger donations to a smaller number of charities, rather than making $10 donations to ten or fifteen groups that might each share your information with several other charities or fundraisers. Also, do not make a donation to a charity you know nothing about simply because it happened to solicit you. Instead, be proactive in your giving by thinking about what causes are important to you and seeking out efficient charities working within those causes. When making your charitable donations, communicate that your gifts are contingent on your information not being shared. If a charity or its fundraiser refuses to honor your request, direct your donation elsewhere.

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