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All this stuff came from charities: Aren’t we supposed to give to them?

Many charities hand out swag to potential donors they hope will give year after year.
Charity swag - calendars, wrapping paper, pens and other items charities sent to one person this year as an inducement to  donate.
Charity swag - calendars, wrapping paper, pens and other items charities sent to one person this year as an inducement to donate. [ Susan Taylor Martin ]
Published Dec. 25, 2019

On the fourth day of Christmas a charity gave to me:

Four sheets of stickers

Three pads of paper

Two pocket planners

And a booklet with healthy recipes

Charity giving hits its peak in the three months leading up to Christmas and New Year’s, but it often seems that charities do a lot of giving themselves. Pens, note pads, personalized address labels — if it’s easy to mail, chances are some charity has sent it out as an inducement.

“It can be a very expensive form of fundraising but it helps get access to someone who might want to donate,” said Ashley Post of Charity Navigator, a watchdog group that rates more than 9,000 charities.

Studies have shown that a charity loses about half of its contributors each year so it constantly needs to replenish its donor base. The goal is to get a donor to contribute at least twice: “Once a donor makes a second gift, there is a greater sense of loyalty," Post said. To build loyalty — and get more and bigger donations — charities often send out those little gifts.

Over the past few months, this reporter has received solicitations from 23 different charities and other nonprofits, all with at least one gift. The loot included six calendars, two Old Farmer’s Almanacs, 85 greeting cards (with envelopes), two bookmarks, a calculator, a poster-size map of the United States and enough sheets of wrapping paper to cover a wall. Plus, a tote bag in which to carry it all.

Just because a charity sends a gift, there’s no obligation to donate. However, many people do send at least a few dollars, if only out of a sense of guilt for using those handy address labels. But Charity Navigator and other watchdog groups say it’s better to make bigger donations to a few organizations whose work you especially admire rather than little donations to a lot of disparate groups.

With some exceptions, charities and other non-profits must file annual financial reports, called Form 990s, with the Internal Revenue Service. Using data culled from those, Charity Navigator’s web site rates organizations from zero to four stars — four showing the highest levels of transparency, accountability and appropriate use of finances. As a rule of thumb, a charity should invest at least 75 percent of its donations on programs and services for the cause it espouses.

The Blackbaud Institute, which monitors charitable giving, sees evidence that charities are cutting back on the gifts they send in favor of touting results.

“Today’s modern donor wants to hear how their gift is making an impact and is less interested in the incentives to donate,” said Steven R. MacLaughlin, an institute vice president. Hence campaigns showing refugee kids receiving medical care and Habitat for Humanity volunteers building houses.

The majority of giving still goes to religious, higher education and health charities. But “fundraising is a changing landscape,” MacLaughlin said, and the past decade has seen an increase in giving to nonprofits that support animal, environmental, international and human rights-focused causes.