21 Nov. 2006
SETI League
PriUPS Project

A Time for Mailing

It's that time of the year.  I just received a seasonal onslaught of gimme mails from the usual suspects:  Diseases various, organizations promoting the "arts," and other worthy causes and forces for good in the community.  Which reminded me...

Despite my manifold and manifest eccentricities, I manage to have a number of friends.  One of them happens to be a human female of childbearing age, and a number of years ago she did just that.  Her daughter, at the time of this story about age 7, attended a lower grade of school.  At this school, the children were organized into a bizarre endeavor whereby they would read "books," and dutifully count their number.  (These were tiny books.  I don't think they were ready for John le Carr yet.)  The parents of these children were, in turn, responsible for soliciting "pledges" from largely unrelated adults that they (the adults) would donate a certain amount of money for each "book" read by the child.  These donations would then be aggregated by the school and sent to an organization that sends cows to poor people.  I was among those requested to make a pledge.

You can tell from the length of the paragraph above that the path from me to the cow was a lengthy and fortuitous one.  Nonetheless, I was happy to make a pledge.  The person who asked was a friend, and I did it to make her happy.  Although I didn't consider it at the time, I could even have cited self interest.  Encouraging the literacy of her child might increase the pool of people willing and able to read to me, as she will be of an appropriate age if I happen to become old and blind.  And I must emphasize that I have nothing against the charity involved.  If I happened to have a cow, I would surely offer it to a poor person after confirming that a certain local dairy that makes artisanal cheeses was without interest.

The day arrived.  I was informed that 18 books had been read and I made good on my pledge by writing a check for $18 to the charity involved, which check wended its way to the recipient in much the same way as its precedent but more ethereal pledge.

Can You Say "Mistake?"

It is my great good fortune to live in a zip code* where there is a preponderance of charitable donors over recipients.  As a result, I am, daily, the recipient of a welter of postal pleas from charities national and local, famous and obscure, worthy and, shall we say, questionable.  Like almost everyone, I have a small handful of charities I support while ignoring the vast majority along with the brochures they rode in on.

Which brings me to the point of this blogitem.  Almost every day, when I go to the mailbox, at least one reaction is "Pah**.  More junk mail."  Unlike email spam, I don't resent junk mail because I feel that in most cases, the senders are making an honest attempt to get my attention for something valid.  While it is still largely junk, and still of no interest, at least the sender had to pay to get it to me.  I don't receive five hundred ads for crucial meds in the mail every day because any sender would realize that the cost would vastly exceed any random custom he might garner.

Except for Charity!

There is an exception to this cost/benefit analysis, however, and it is for junk mail from charities. 

Q:  Why?  What's wrong with charities?  Are you a Scrooge?
A:  See below, nothing, and only in part.

When I opened a brochure posted from Heifer International, I was at first puzzled.  It seemed to me that this organization was trying to get me to send them money so they could send cows to poor people.  It was only after I read their cover letter thanking me for my donation that I realized what had happened.  They, for whatever reason, believed that my small check, the terminus of that long chain of happenstance, somehow represented my special support for their organization.  I explained to them (briefly!) that I was not interested and would they please remove me from their list.  They didn't.

As solicitation after solicitation arrived from this charity, I realized two things:  One is that they were wasting so much money in printing and paper costs that it would eventually exceed my meager donation.  The other, far worse, is that they were wasting your money and mine in the same endeavor.  Charities are offered a highly-subsidized postal rate unavailable to individuals and to commercial enterprises.  Since the post office breaks even, more or less, it's clear that other users of the post must be subsidizing the charities.  Is this bad?  Not always.  As a society and as individuals, we do subsidize charities, mostly without complaint.  But as individuals we do it voluntarily, and as a society, we have as much right to demand that charities have good manners at the public trough as we have to demand the same of such public institutions as the government.  And just as we rightly whine about government waste, we should do so about non-profit waste which we might otherwise be willing subsidize.

My cow-transfer-folk issue was not their first solicitation.  At that point, they did not know that I had no interest, although they might have suspected it from the method by which they received my donation.  But, after I told them so, I had hopes that they would eschew their frequent and futile dunning, and they did not.  Every irresponsible new plea from them lightened the postal service reserve by some amount, which eventually had to be replaced by unsubsidized mailers.

What Can Be Done?

With that heading, I think this has turned from a blogitem into a screed.  So mote it be.  Yet the answer should be an easy one!  So easy, in fact, that maybe we can do it with a simple regulation.  How about:

  • When a charity sends a solicitation by subsidized post, it should be required to, right on the card that says "here's my $25 /$50 /$100 /Other amount" have a checkbox saying "I am not interested in this charity.  Please remove my name for 1 Year /2 Years /5 Years /10 Years."

  • Once the non-profit receives such a card, it may no longer send subsidized postal mail to the recipient for any period indicated.

  • If it does so, the recipient can complain to the U.S. Postal Service, which will revoke their subsidy if it finds too many violations in relation to the mailing pieces it sends.

Simple, yes?  Effective, right?  I do love my ideas, even when they just save a few hundred million dollars instead of the planet!  Meanwhile, I have learned an important lesson:  When making a donation that involves large farm animals, do it with currency so the recipient can't derive my name and address from the check.

*I actually live in a house, in turn part of a community, which itself is part of a borough, and so forth.  However, to the commercial and charitable world, I live in a zip code. 

**I make this blogging look too easy.  All you have to do is read it.  I have to parse the meaning of my interjections and agonize over which is most nearly appropriate.

Pah:  (used as an exclamation of disgust or disbelief.)
Bah:  (an exclamation of contempt or annoyance) : Bah! Humbug!. 

Richard Factor

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