Never Enough

Almost never does a day go by when we don’t receive at least one solicitation from a charity, the vast majority from charities to which we have never contributed and to which we most likely never will. But even charities to which we have contributed continue to “remind” us of how great the need is, often in the same letter in which they offer thanks and a receipt for a previous contribution.

Our personal policy is never even to answer telephone solicitations – we monitor the call screen – and do not answer unknown numbers. People we don’t know can easily leave a message if it’s that important. We also have a firm policy of one contribution per year to each charity, although there are two or three for which I might occasionally – very occasionally – make an exception.

Despite years of adherence to those policies, we still get attempted telephone solicitations and an average of more than twenty charitable solicitations by mail every week. There are a number of “charities” whose name I recognize because they’ve sent so many appeals that we’ve never acknowledged. Some of the charities we do support still attempt to obtain multiple donations, which I ignore.

These days there seems to be a charity for damned-near everything, and they each want to persuade potential donors of how great their need is. Some of those needs, I know, are real. Some are real in the minds of those who created the charity, and a great many, I suspect, address a “need” of some sort as a way of doing well for those who administer the charity.

I’m old enough to recall when there were few enough “national” charities that one could remember most of them – The Red Cross, United Way, March of Dimes, and a few others. Now there are literally thousands, if not more. Yet what puzzles me is the fact that as national health and living standards have improved, charities have proliferated, and, according to the Treasury Department, American individuals, foundations, and corporations donate $450 billion every year.

Some of this charitable proliferation is likely because many people have become more aware of needs and inequities not addressed by government and religion. Some of it is because, as medical care and social support networks have improved, people who would have died early or from battlefield injuries are surviving. Some of it is because the definition of need has broadened enormously, to include animals, as well as international and environmental needs.

For all that, somehow, I have a hard time believing that so many people are so much worse off now than they were a generation or two back.

8 thoughts on “Never Enough”

  1. Grey says:

    I have a few friends in this space and have asked similar questions. Charitable giving has been steady at about 2% of GDP in the US for quite a long time. The uptick in charities is related to a few things.

    On the positive side, it’s recognized that progress can be made in some areas (social, environmental), using donated money that doesn’t have to go through the governmental process.

    Less so, there are egomaniacs who like the attention/adoration of doing good, and of course grifters who are, well, grifting. One could cast an eye at Lara Trump’s dog rescue charity, which brought in about $12 million and spent about $2 million of it renting Trump properties, though I’m sure she would say you need to spend money to get money donated. [1]

    A simple practical factor is that it’s much easier now to reach the potential donor base, both in terms of buying lists of who they might be, and actually reaching them. The frequency of the outreach likely has something to deal with more players competing for the same amount of money (given that the relative amount of donations isn’t changing).

    One thing to consider, is that as you move on towards your golden sunset, you are likely to be targeted as they want you to think about them in terms of a line item in your will. Also, sadly, older people are seen as easier to trick into giving donations.


  2. Tim says:

    As for charities pushing hard on “legacy management” my advice to anyone who has their main beneficiaries at heart is : do not leave anything to a charity.

    Friends have experienced just how persistent and remorseless they are when seeking their pound of flesh.

    If probate is delayed, they just keep on and on. For The Cause.

    1. Hanneke says:

      All the reasons mentioned for the proliferation of charities may well be true.

      There might still be some increase in peopleand causes in need too. Causes, as awareness of (rapidly accelerating) environmental damage in the last 40 years has increased a lot, and factory farming practices have also increased large-scale harm to animals.
      People in need, because of the much greater financial inequality among people, leaving many more on the edge of poverty, while a predatory healthcare system leaves them very vulnerable to insurmountable setbacks.

      There are more people too in absolute numbers, though I’m not sure how the percentage of those in need is doing over time. That also means more donors so if the percentage of those in need is holding steady, a steady percentage of charitable gift-giving should take care of that, if that same percentage wasn’t being spread out across more charities, some of which are grifters, and some of which tackle environmental and animal issues that weren’t (recognised as) necessary or urgent a few decades ago, and so weren’t being addressed by charities then.
      More charitable causes being supported by the same percentage of charitable donations makes the slice of the pie smaller for each of them.

      Then, factor in the widespread distrust among Americans for well-organised tax-based (religiously neutral) government support, a dislike for strong government regulation including on charities (accreditation and rules for sollicitations; the ability to meaningfully opt-out of phone sollicitations and mailing lists with fines for tho1se companies and charities that don’t respect that listing; closing your mailbox to advertising material, unaddressed mail and/or free newspapers by putting a Yes-No or No-No sticker on the lid, etc.), and a strong preference to rely on personal or religious charities to take care of needs which other countries organise in other ways, and you get this over-charitied approach.

  3. Michael Creek says:

    Some problems are international. Here in Australia, we have a “Do not call” register for cold calls from businesses. The two sectors that are exempt are (1) Charities and (2) Political parties.
    Occasionally, I have given a donation to some worthy cause or other. The problem is, once you are on their giving database they will continue to bother you, more or less regularly. In the end I feel that they spend far more in postage etc. than I have ever given. They are also active on social media. I once looked at the WWF website. Next moment, there was material appearing in my facebook feed from, you guessed it, WWF. Also, other like charities.

  4. John Mai says:

    I could start a charity in which I have a dearth of books, if you could see your way clear to donating your books to me, say, current, new or yet unpublished, your charitable donation would go a long way to helping those (me) be entertained and possibly even educated.

  5. R. Hamilton says:

    Everything, not just charities, solicits endlessly these days. veryone Nearly everyone I’ve ever signed up for a “rewards” card with or bought from online emails at least once a week, if not once a day. And they want ratings, too (to be fair, it takes a lot of good ratings to offset a bad one; and there are people who will provide spitefully bad ratings not for a bad product or service, but for a poor choice or unreasonable expectation on their part).

    There are multiple listings of charities that offer brief descriptions and a rating in terms of overhead vs amount actually going to the stated cause. A search for
    charity ratings
    will find those easily. As is hardly unique to charities, the transparency (all that would really be needed to fix many things) is not all that might be desired, but it’s enough to make reasonable choices.

    Aside from something extra for disaster relief and similar non-periodic events, participating in selected charities while setting limits on how much or how often one supports them, is a perfectly reasonable balance. For those with the time, skills, temperament, and energy needed, actual participation rather than donating is also an option.

    Still, for all the present faults and annoyances, I prefer voluntary private solutions to involuntary public ones as much as has any chance at all of doing what really needs doing, and simply NOT doing what arguably doesn’t need doing.

  6. Grey says:

    On your point about the lack of transparency, one of the big issues is that unlike a ordinary business, which ordinarily measures success by monetary profits, there is no such metric for charities or non-profits. So even if the nonprofit has an acceptable ratio of expenses versus spending towards their goal, or money spent to generate new donations, how do you know if they’re actually any good at what they do?

  7. Wine Guy says:

    CharityWatch.Org and are good places to start to see if your money is actually being used well by a charity… if it has been reviewed.

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