Charity's guilt-wrapped holidays

I'm not an endangered species; I have no dread disease; my mental faculties are intact (as far as I can tell); and I'm well-housed, well-clad, and (too) well-fed. So why are so many worthy charities donating to me?

I'm snowed under this holiday season with "free gifts" of handsome calendars, sheets of wrapping paper and note paper, packets of Christmas cards, and dozens of panels of self-addressed labels. All come guilt-wrapped.

Although I've neither requested nor paid for these gifts, twinges of conscience cloud each day shown on those calendars. By about Presidents' Day, the guilt usually fades, except when I'm taunted by the ghostly screech of a rare spotted owl breathing its last, I imagine, because I kept the charity's offering and failed to send a donation. This tends to happen in the middle of a wakeful night, when I stare owlishly at the conservation calendar in my bedroom. (I have free calendars in just about every room in the house.)

I contribute regularly to my favorite charities and causes, but I wish they wouldn't keep in such regular touch with me. At this time of year I hear from some once or twice a week. How can sending a gift to me help feed a starving child, save the whales, keep the peace, chill global warming or clean up pollution, I ask? Surely the preparation and postage costs add up to far more than I send.

Savvy marketers and fundraisers tell me otherwise. They say that I'm naive, and they spew statistics, citing demographic shifts and tax advantages to prove their point that guilt-wrapped gifts pay for themselves many times over.

The gift gimmick is one thing, I admit; sending me money is quite another. Recently, I received a plea with a nickel and three pennies glued to the letter that explained just how far 8 cents can go toward the cause. I couldn't help thinking that if the charity fired the fundraiser, saved the postage and handling charges, and added up the thousands of nickels and pennies, it might have a tidy sum to contribute toward its own appeal. Then came a different request for a contribution along with a pen and a check for $2.50 - made out to me. You do the math.

I didn't cash the check, and I've thought about returning "free gifts" to the sender. "Don't even try," my mailman said. "It's not first-class mail, so we can't return it. Use it or toss it." And then he added, "Or live with it. Once you're in their computer, you're there for life."

A sobering thought.

I'm left with a dilemma that I suspect many of you know: If you open all the appeals and read them through, it breaks your heart - but contribute to them all, and it breaks the bank. So I've settled on some criteria for guilt-free giving. I toss unopened anything that arrives with wrist-slapping reproaches on the envelope ("Mary, this is your second notice!") along with anything that screams URGENT, OPEN IMMEDIATELY or RUSH. I open those with gifts inside because I see no point in throwing out usable items that can't be returned. But I refuse to answer surveys or even read through requests that are more than one page long. Despite the fundraisers' fancy figures, I'm convinced that I'm not the only person to be turned off by such pleas.

One charity to which I shall never again donate, for example, sent me a mailing in an extravagantly sized 11-by-13-inch envelope, scolding me because, it said, I was "not one of the 17,050,000 ... who answered our previous letters. I think I know why." Well, don't be too sure, I felt like saying. If you knew why I didn't join the more than 17 million (17 million, did you say?) who responded, why did you send me a duplicate mailing - same huge package, same chastisement, same six-page letter, same long survey - a few weeks later? Are you still clueless?

And although I'm convinced that my favorite charity has more sense than to try this, I sometimes fear what I might get this Christmas from Heifer International, which enables contributors to donate a heifer - or a share of one - or a goat or a flock of geese to some of the poorest families in the world. I dream of finding on my doorstep half a llama with a note attached: "For $75 more, you can get the front end."

Mary Z. Gray, a freelance writer, will not consider using e-mail until her inexhaustible supply of free mailing labels is exhausted. © The Washington Post.

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