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Daniel Rubin: Experts on nonprofits explain mailings game

Lucy Walton says she's got Ann Grossman beat. She read last week's column about the 83-year-old retired Latin teacher, who'd charted a full year's worth of charity solicitations - 678 - mailed to her Media retirement home.

Lucy Walton says she's got Ann Grossman beat. She read last week's column about the 83-year-old retired Latin teacher, who'd charted a full year's worth of charity solicitations - 678 - mailed to her Media retirement home.

Walton gets about that many in four months - come-ons from veterans' groups, police and fire, American Indians, conservative political groups.

"I want to help these people," said Walton, 87, who lives in the Lutheran Community at Telford. "But it's come back to bite me."

And Maxine Schoenholtz's 95-year-old father, whose dining-room table in Northeast Philadelphia has been transformed into a display of the hundreds of notepads and notebooks, pens and pencils, bookmarks, T-shirts, aprons, tote bags, ski caps, ball caps and gloves, and other tokens that nonprofits give in hopes of receiving.

After the column about Grossman's experiment, I was deluged myself by seniors, mostly, complaining about the burden of bulk-mail pitches. It made me want to know more about why bad things are happening to nice people.

"Because she's a good donor," said Laura Otten, director of the Nonprofit Center at La Salle University. The Grossmans give modestly, but broadly - to 38 charities last year.

That makes them prime targets.

So does their zip code.

And their building. "Everybody knows Martins Run is very wealthy," Otten said.

So, those who live in such places hear year-round from those they give to and like organizations that pay for lists of givers. The going rate for names, Otten said, ranges from $60 to $100 per thousand.

Daniel Borochoff, president of the American Institute of Philanthropy, a charity watchdog in Chicago, said one way for people to protect themselves from solicitations was to be more proactive.

"The number-one reason people in America give is because they're asked," he said. "If people would research charities they want to give to on their own, there wouldn't be as much soliciting."

Rather than spreading the love, benefactors should consider making fewer but larger contributions.

"It's almost like you're teasing the charities," Borochoff said. "Once you signal to a charity that you're interested, they're going to start hitting on you with a lot of appeals."

A dozen years ago, Borochoff got a glimpse of the economics behind these pitches, numbers that hold true today, he said.

Say an orangutan-welfare organization asks 100,000 people for $25. Of that mailing, 99 percent of the potential donors will toss the letter. The $25,000 brought in by the 1,000 people who do give won't pay for the mailing, which costs $35,000.

But there's gold in those 1,000 givers. Over the next two years, the orangutan lovers will send them eight more pitches, and the donors will give an additional $20,500. Subtracting the cost of the follow-up letters - less than $4,000 - leaves $16,700 for the ape mission. That's a nice return on investment.

The number of pitches has increased during the last decade as the industry has become more sophisticated about what works, said Eileen Heisman, who runs the National Philanthropic Trust. One of the reasons charities send mail throughout the year is that there are people who give something every time they get pitched, she said. Unlike the Grossmans, most people forget when they last gave.

The fund-raising experts I talked to suggested giving anonymously (unless the donor needs a tax write-off) or using a go-between, such as GlobalGiving or the Network for Good, which help shield your address from solicitors.

UNICEF spokeswoman Lisa Szarkowski explained that steady givers of small amounts like the Grossmans represented "bread and butter" for nonprofits while corporate givers reduced their contributions. Individual donors account for 30 percent of the organization's revenue, Szarkowski said.

Some of the 24 mailings that UNICEF sent to the Grossmans last year were solicitations. Others were thank-yous, tax receipts, and information about greeting cards and catalogs that benefit the charity.

Each one included information about opting out of mail, "because," Szarkowski said, "we don't want to be a nuisance or irrelevant."

When UNICEF read that Ann Grossman felt swamped by mail, it sent another letter, reminding her she can control the mailings, the spokeswoman said. "I hope she opened it."

She didn't.