the charity customer

special customer offer
A charity, of course, may rely primarily on their reputation to obtain donations but to a large extent they need to hook you – essentially a customer – into thinking you’ll “get something out of it.” If the charity bumbles this concept and fails to deliver what you expected, they probably won’t continue to get your money.

I have a few specific experiences I’ve had with charities in mind. One is Children International. If you sign up to sponsor a child, you get pictures of the child, occasional letters and all kinds of appeals for holiday presents, birthday presents and so on. Your donation probably goes to a general fund and gets redistributed – it’s not like your check being cashed by the child – but still they give you the illusion that you are supporting a child.

I supported Children International for a number of years although I recently stopped contributing. I had started doing it a long time ago and Bubelah and I decided we’d rather see our money go to different causes (Russian Children’s Welfare Society and The Salvation Army, primarily) The Salvation Army, in particular, has us hooked almost as much as “customers” as donors – they take away things we don’t want anymore – gently worn coats, shirts, shoes and so on. We get more out of them than they do out of us, I think. The RCWS sends us a very pleasant, low-key request for donations a few times a year, but they also provide newsletters and charity fund-raiser invitations, and since both of us have significant connections to Russia we feel some personal connection to their mission.

But there’s another kind of charity – one that despite an admirable mission really botches their chance at hooking someone in for life. I think a lot of charitable givers do get “hooked in” or “turned off” on their initial contact with the charity. I dislike the United Way for what I saw as heavy-handed “forced giving” tactics in the corporate environment. I was pressured incessantly by my company’s management to give to the United Way when I was a wet-behind-the-ears accountant. My office was a 100% giver! Woohoo! Yet I said I preferred not to give, because at the time I supported another local charity and saw no reason to give to a national organization. It may not have been United Way’s fault, but getting reamed by senior partners about giving to one charity instead of their precious United Way (and thereby messing up their 100% giver claim) made me unlikely to give to United Way again in my lifetime.

Another one was Doctors Without Borders. I love their mission – it is one of the purest forms of charity I can imagine to go into a war zone and treat ANYONE injured, regardless of status or creed or condition. Yet they fumbled their initial encounter with me. I made a fairly large (for my income at the time) donation to them in my dad’s name and asked them to send a card telling him about it for his birthday. This was an established program, not something I made up. They missed it. They never sent it, despite several calls. Yet I started receiving an avalanche of mail seeking further donations – probably more than any other charity who has ever approached me. So since my attention span for charity giving is not unlimited, they lost my attention. I turned and looked elsewhere.

A charity is in a tenuous position compared to a business. Since they seldom actually give you anything in return other than a good feeling, it’s hard for them to capture your attention if they ever give you the slightest bad feeling. I grumble about Microsoft products but I still keep using Windows, because the good outweighs the bad. A charity can’t do that. They need to bat 1.000. There is no margin for error. There are so many charities doing so many good things that it’s easy to be distracted by the next ‘good charity’ when a ‘bad charity’ fumbles that initial contact.

So who are the ‘good’ and ‘bad’ charities? I am willing to bet two people will have exactly the opposite view of the same organization, and I’m sure someone could disagree with all of my assessments above just because of their own initial contacts with those organizations. It’s all determined by that first contact, when you decide whether or not to become a customer.

Creative Commons License photo credit: amishsteve

15 Replies to “the charity customer”

  1. I agree entirely about United Way. Every year at my workplace I am equally harassed. We have to be 100% !! One year, in fact, we all got little gold stars (permanent ones!) to stick on our employee badges when we made our contributions. I really, really resent United Way and am not (as the Bible admonishes us to be) a cheerful giver. I view this as another bill that I have to pay. By contrast, my husband and I have given willingly to Christian Children’s Fund over the years. When we moved a few years ago, the monthly statements got lost in the transition and it would have been easy to let it slide, but we wrote them and called until we got the address straightened out because we wanted to give and liked their low-key approach with the “high dividend” emotional yield. As BB says, however, many of you will have equally intense opposite feelings.

  2. Any charity whose workers approach me whilst I’m in the pub is on the blacklist. It’s not so much that I’m drinking and socialising and don’t want to be interrupted (although that is true). It’s that the people involved strongly give the impression that they don’t care about the charity and wouldn’t know anything if you asked them anyway. They feel like scams.

    I think that the whole *sponsor a child* thing is a bit of a waste of money. All those photos and letters and so on cost money. That money essentially comes from your donation – it’s like buying pretend friendship, why not just get a penpal (write to a soldier or a prisoner or whatever) and donate to a charity.

  3. I got turned off by a call from our museum asking for donations, because when I said $50, they said they were suggesting $500. After my initial shock I wrote the museum asking that they remove me from their calling and mailing lists as they obviously didn’t need my measly $50 donation since they could afford to demand $500. I still got calls from them and each time explained that no, I couldn’t afford their rates. One enterprising caller said I should forgive them their one mistake which may be true, but it felt like getting lectured.
    There are a lot of charities out there, so they really cannot afford to alienate people. It must be very difficult.

  4. One way to find “good” and “bad” charities is Charity Navigator ( I found this database to be fascinating- it lets you know how the donations are used, what the top execs at the charities get paid, and how much of my donation is actually used for the stated purpose, rather than admin costs or more fundraising. I found a few surprises, and I’m determined to check out Charity Navigator now before I make a commitment to support an organization.

  5. I dislike the charity workers in the UK who try to sell you monthly subscriptions in the street. Most people do not know that they get paid commission on the sale – probably equivilent to your first years payments.

  6. Boooo to United Way! Same here, how unpleasant it was to participate in “giving” to UW charity. Everyboyd at work were complaining. Finally the management decided to count for 100% PARTICIPATION, not 100% DONATION. Which meant that you could go online and say “NO” to donating if you didn’t want to, but at least you participated. Wow!

  7. I’ve always believed that charity comes from the heart so that’s how I pick the charities to which I donate — from the heart. My own church is always first on my list. When it comes to material donations, we alternate between the DAV or the ARC because those causes especially personal to us. My husband himself is a DAV (disabled American veteran) and he has a son by his first wife who is mentally handicapped.

  8. I started my career as a weenie in the Federal Government, and their Combined Federal Campaign is in the same boat as United Way (in fact, the CFC includes the United Way on its list of charities). Most government agencies even designate a person to be the office nag.

    I also like Salvation Army because of their low-key approach, and because they’ve established such a track record of good works. We also give through memberships in various nonprofit organizations, such as zoos and museums. The return on those is more easily quantifiable – free admission, discounts, and things like that.

  9. I give to a charity called World Vision. I respect them on two counts…first, they use 87% for the actual work, which is good compared to a lot.

    Second, while they’re acting out of a desire to follow Christ, they don’t seem to equate this with any kind of forced evangelizing that’s tied directly to the charity—you don’t need to go to church to get help, etc. I had an agnostic friend volunteer with them for a summer and he was quite impressed with their lack of efforts to convert. I think the idea was that if they show love, people will ask where this love comes from. And if people don’t ask, maybe they’re not showing a good enough example.

  10. I get annoyed with the door-to-door people looking for charity – the problem is that some of them (most?) are professionals getting paid to get donations.

  11. Glad to read I’m not the only person who has had that experience with the United Way. It was like that at my old work. What a joke.

  12. I tend to donate only to local charities, or charities I have a direct tie to. I donate to my local food pantry, to my local goodwill store, and to the charity that my sister-in-law works for – my giving is heavy to all of these places.

  13. I remember the United Way days at my employer! I’m glad they don’t do that anymore. There was definitely pressure to donate. I was much happier when they had a toy donation box that I would donate to.

    Too bad about Doctors Without Borders. I’ve donated to them in the past since I really liked the work they were doing. I would probably donate to them still.

    1. I’m a little surprised at the outpouring of resentment against United Way! I think they are a perfect example of “not attracting the customer”.

      And I put the door-to-door charity work right up there with internet spam for being a ripoff. A real charity shouldn’t go door-to-door begging. It’s just not the way to make repeat customers happen.

  14. I love the Salvation Army. I have been volunteering with them for several years now, and their money goes to what it says it does. Whether its helping the homeless or helping people who cant afford bills they really seem to be genuine

    I am not a big fan of the red cross. They have been very rude and abrupt with me. When giving they just ask for more and more and more. They have a tendency to push for a higher amount as well…

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