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Shaming You Into Charity

These days it seems like we've got to be manipulated into giving.

Hank Davis
Source: Hank Davis

Today is charity day. Before some of you jump down my throat saying “Every day should be charity day,” let me explain. Each year I give to about 25 charities. I let the solicitations accumulate all year. I just throw them into a cardboard box until the big day. Then I sort them into piles: all the Red Cross envelopes go here; the SPCA stuff goes here; the International Fund for Animal Welfare goes here; Planned Parenthood goes here, etc.

It takes a fair bit of time to do this and some of those stacks get pretty tall. Which is part of what I want to tell you about. Another thing is that some of those appeals seem unnecessarily dramatic and manipulative, which is something else I want to talk to you about. I mean, look. I’m going to write a check anyway. It’s a modest check, but I’ve done so every year for the past ten years. I really don’t need to be shown a picture of a pathetic-looking harp seal with those big saucer-like eyes, and told “This is Betty Sue. Her mother was just clubbed to death before her eyes. If you don’t send us a check in the next 20 minutes, she will be dragged off to perform in a circus in Indonesia where she will be starved and mistreated. Only we can save her and we can’t do it without your donation. Now!” And, if those saucer-eyed seals don’t do it for you, the other animal that seems to be getting a lot of play in this year’s mailings is the elephant. Emblazoned across multiple envelopes in my box is the question: Have you ever heard an elephant cry?

I haven’t, and I hope not to. Like I said, I was writing the check anyway. I suppose there are donor categories out there that these campaigns know about. First, there are some of you who could walk past a weeping elephant and not miss a beat. Second, there are those who were on the brink of making a donation but needed something to push them over the line. Third, there are those, like me, who already had their checkbooks out before they were assaulted with images of weeping elephants.

It's plain to see, campaigns are geared to the second category. The first is a lost cause, and the third is rare enough not to worry about. In fact, maybe we’ll even feel better about ourselves knowing we’ve helped dry an elephant’s eyes. But how many of us in the third category end up writing a blog about feeling manipulated?

I admit: running a charity is a competitive business. You’ve got to up the ante if you want to win that donation dollar. My favorite charities fall into niches: animal welfare, Amnesty International-type organizations, Save the Environment, etc. For every one of those categories there is a daunting array of hands (or paws) reaching out. A seal here, an elephant there, a bear here, numerous dogs and cats (better yet, puppies and kittens with neotenous eyes).

You’ve got to compete. And we haven’t even gotten to the issue of freebies and frequency. Freebies seem to be important in soliciting donations. The principle of “You’ve got to give to get” is well entrenched in the charity business. I’ve received enough calendars, Christmas cards, pens, “I love my pet” fridge magnets, address stickers and note pads (“From the desk of Dr. Hank Davis”) to start a stationary store. I guess there are enough folks out there who reason, “These people have sent me some stuff; I’ve got to send them something.” I used to think it had something to do with vanity (you know, all that personalized stuff.) But apparently it’s also rooted in guilt. The most naked example of this made me laugh out loud. One of these charities – it might have been Easter Seals or the Red Cross – sent me a nickel. Right there – visibly taped to the envelope. That’s sure an attention grabber! A real negotiable (all but worthless) coin. Yours for free. Now! Go ahead and ignore us! Just try, you heartless sociopath! I guess I’m guilty as charged. I stuffed the envelope in the Charity Box with all its competitors and used the coin in a parking meter.

There’s also the issue of frequency. How many of these entreaties do I need every year? Some charities are dignified. I get between one and three reminders a year. Others are over-the-top, verging on harassment. I don’t need 12 mailings a year. In March and April, I’m told to “be on the lookout for the wonderful gift the animals will send you soon.” Anthropomorphism on parade, but let’s not even worry about that for the moment. In May, the totebag, emblazoned with adorable animal faces arrives. In June and July, the mailings ask “Did you receive the gift the animals sent you?” In September, an envelope actually says in large, bold font, “Surely by now you must have received your Gift.” Actually, I did. It’s been sitting unopened in “The Box.” I’ve been blundering through my toteless life until yesterday, when I sent you the check I was going to send you anyway. Only now I’m having second thoughts about whether I’m helping to support the animals or keeping a totebag factory in China in business.

Does all of this mean I’m the Grinch? Hardly so. I give a tidy amount to charity every year. But I resent being manipulated into it. I don’t like being shamed, guilted, or otherwise conned into giving. I realize I’m being harsh. Some of these mailings actually celebrate success in a dignified way each year. I like to read stories about successful environmental litigation against BP or logging companies or Big Government. Other charities seem to bask in R-rated descriptions of atrocities that occur when selfish scum (like me?) doesn’t donate from the heart, often and a lot.

I believe in the charities I support. Some, like Doctors Without Borders or Greenpeace do work I believe deeply in. Others are more personal, maybe even a little frivolous. I donate each year to the Marmot Recovery Fund ( and I don’t care who knows it. Yeah, I choose an endangered species of rodents living in British Columbia over starving children in Ethiopia. I figure, somebody else has the kids covered and, at the end of the day, it’s my money.

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