Why Am I Suddenly a “Member”?

When did I become a member of groups I never knowingly joined?

Maybe I’m mistaken, but I always thought the word “member” meant that one had purposefully joined a club or similar entity.  Joining such a group can be a good idea.  For example, membership in a social club offers a range of pleasant benefits, like golf, swimming, or dining in an exclusive setting.

Being a member of a professional organization generally offers career-oriented perks, along with help climbing a possibly shaky ladder to professional success.  And then there’s membership in a political party, which has always meant sharing an outlook (more or less) on public policy.

But now it seems that my charitable instincts have turned me into a “member” of a host of other groups.  Charities to which I’ve donated a few stray bucks have anointed me as a member, and they are now pursuing me to “renew” my membership!

Jeez, I didn’t realize that when I sent Charity X a small donation I would suddenly become a “member” of that admirable group.  But apparently I did because here’s an envelope it recently sent me, announcing that there are “10 reasons to renew [my] membership”!

The X Foundation, another commendable organization to which I’ve donated a small sum on occasion, has now written me to ask for more.  The shocker is the envelope’s threat that this is my “final renewal notice” this year.  But please tell me, folks, when exactly did I join in the first place?

Yes, I’m a softie, and I have perhaps foolishly sent dribs-and-drabs donations to a wide array of worthy groups that tug at my heart.  But please let me know, Charities A, B, and C, why that constitutes “membership” in your organization?  Yes, you do such wonderful work on behalf of people with diabetes, cancer, or blindness.  But seriously, all I did was send you a check or two.  Yet now you’ve sent me a “renewal reminder.”

Some of these groups have even issued “membership cards,” complete with member numbers.  And a few have gone over the edge and sent me membership “statements” that strongly resemble bills.  I just got one in today’s mail.  C’mon, people!  Do you think that scares me into sitting down and writing you a check?

Truthfully, I resent being lumped into the category of “member” by groups like these, with which I have no real connection other than a desire to add a small amount to their coffers.  Being threatened with a “final renewal reminder” doesn’t induce me to respond.  On the contrary, it makes me wonder about the professional fundraisers these groups have hired.  Do their ominous reminders work on anyone?  They certainly don’t work on me.  Instead of loosening my purse strings, they encourage me to tighten them.  The threatening envelopes get tossed into my recycling more often than not.

All this tossing makes me think hard about the charitable world today.   For one thing, I’ve been warned about an insidious trend.  It appears that if you donate only a small amount, charities tend to sell your name to other groups, so you can then be hounded by ten or twelve charities instead of just one.  “Your name is worth more to these charities than the $25 you give them,” a friend confided.  If that’s true, it simply compounds the problem.  And it seems to account for the plethora of solicitations I find in my overstuffed mailbox every day.

While I’m at it, I’ll go further and denounce some of the other tactics these groups employ.  Even those that don’t call me a “member” are guilty of some pretty odious practices.  First, I am now the recipient of endless “free gifts.”  The proliferation of address labels has gotten totally out of hand.

My daily mail includes countless address labels from groups I’ve never even heard of.  I’ve received enough of these labels to last at least two more lifetimes, and that’s assuming I never move from my current address.  Other freebies include ballpoint pens, note pads, greeting cards, and calendars, many more than I can ever use (and many so unappealing that I never would use them).  Most of these freebies end up in one of my charity donation bags (one hand washes the other?) or, even worse, the trash, adding to our overflowing landfills and our overburdened recycling centers.

Honestly, I’d much prefer that these groups (who are clearly playing the “guilt” card) spend my cash quite differently.  Hey, folks, please use that money to search for a cure, actively fight racism, directly lift women out of poverty.  Note pads and calendars?  I can buy those myself.

Some of us have gotten wise to this endless pursuit of donations. Internet websites can now tell us just how efficiently most charities are run.  For example, Charity Navigator evaluates charities, distinguishing among them by giving four stars to those that operate efficiently, while giving only one or two stars to the charities that spend too much of their revenue on fundraising and other administrative costs.  This kind of ranking may not be perfect, but it’s helped me weed out some of the groups I used to support.  If enough of us did that, we might have an impact on their most deplorable tactics.

The solution for me may be to become more selective.  Instead of making small donations to a wide range of worthy groups, I may focus on a handful of them and send a larger check to each.  But I fear that my name may stay on the same old mailing lists ad infinitum, adding pounds and pounds to recycling as I continue to toss.  I’ve recently started sending back some solicitation forms, demanding that my name be removed from these lists, but so far I haven’t tracked whether that approach has done any good. I truthfully doubt that it has.

This blizzard of charity solicitations has to stop.  Where I once was charitable, I am now more likely to be hostile, vowing never to contribute a dime to most of the charities that pursue me with such zeal.

Don’t these groups realize that they’ve literally reached a point of no return?

[A version of this commentary previously appeared as an op-ed in the San Francisco Chronicle.]

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