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Solicitation Train

Published 08/01/2010

"Make one gift now and we'll never ask for another donation again!"
If you receive a solicitation in the mail from any charity that makes the above promise, you would be wise to be skeptical. No donor should ever feel obligated to make a contribution in order to not be solicited.

A fed-up donor contacted AIP to let us know that she had asked Smile Train, a charity well known for its ads of children with cleft lips and palates, in September and November of 2009 to remove her name from its mailing list. In early December of the same year she received a letter with Smile Train's promise that in exchange for a contribution they would cease further solicitations to her. So to get the charity off her back she sent them a contribution--yet she continued to receive Smile Train solicitations (one more in December and two more in April 2010) despite notifying Smile Train of her wish to be removed from their list each time she received a solicitation. Rubbing salt into her wounds, this May she received another solicitation with the same offer to not be solicited.

AIP contacted Smile Train regarding its policy for donors who do not wish to be solicited. Michele Sinesky, Donor Relations Manager at Smile Train, told us: "It is our policy and our practice to remove all names from both our acquisition file and our retention file as soon as we receive a request from a donor… When we receive a donation from a donor who receives a 'once and done' solicitation, we add a mail code that guarantees we will not solicit them again." She adds that since Smile Train's mail solicitations are produced several months in advance, donors sometimes receive additional pieces before the mailings are stopped.

In the past AIP has disputed the meaningfulness of Smile Train's claim that "100% of your donation goes to program - 0% goes to overhead." Smile Train defends this statement by saying: "All non-program expenses, such as overhead and fundraising, are paid for with start-up grants from our Founding Supporters." The problem with this reasoning is that any charity could ask a portion of its loyal supporters to use their donations to cover overhead. But overhead expenses will not disappear! Money is fungible, regardless of its source; what is spent on one function is not available for another function. The bottom line is that more donations could go toward treating children with cleft palates if the charity were operating more efficiently, regardless of whether or not some donors earmarked their donations for overhead.

This AIP B rated charity with a fiscal 2009 overhead rate of 30% not only continues to make its "100% goes to program" claim but a recent teaser on a Smile Train solicitation envelope went so far as to quote Smile Train's president as saying, "I run the most cost-efficient charity on Earth." Brian Mullaney, the President and Co-Founder of Smile Train, moderated slightly his boast in his appeal letter inside the envelope by saying "…in spite of the downturn in the economy—we're probably the most cost-efficient charity in the world." The letter does not tell you that Mullaney's total compensation skyrocketed 61% from $420,210 in fiscal 2007 to $678,058 in fiscal 2009—also in spite of the downturn in the economy.

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