Should you use the address labels charities mail out to solicit donations?

Advice on how to make the world better.
July 21 2010 7:12 AM

Don't Label Me

Should you feel guilty about using the address labels charities mail out to solicit donations?

Do you have a real-life do-gooding dilemma? Please send it to ask.my.goodness@gmail.com.

Illustration by Mark Alan Stamaty. Click image to expand.

Dear My Goodness, I've donated in the past to various charities, and I must be on a shared mailing list, because I constantly receive mail asking for donations from organizations I've never heard of. Some of these letters include a sheet of labels printed with my return address. Since I am not interested in some of these groups' causes, I toss the letter and donation envelope but use the return labels for my mail. My boyfriend pokes fun at me because of this. He'd rather have me not use the labels and just throw them away. The labels have the name or symbol of the organization on them, so I worry that I'm perpetuating a lie since the recipient may assume I support the charity. What should I do?

—Debra in Los Angeles

Dear Debra,
An informal poll of friends, relations, and Web pages finds the world divided on the charity-return-address-label issue. I was surprised to find how many, like you, feel guilty if they toss the labels or use them without donating. A lot of people feel beholden enough to give. At the other end of the spectrum are those who perceive the free gift as an irritation—enough already with the labels. But there are plenty of people who are absolutely delighted to get these labels and the printed notepads that sometimes accompany them. Apparently they don't mind their envelopes carrying a message, like a car with bumper stickers.

"We do it because it works," says Jennifer Bielat, vice president for direct marketing of Easter Seals, which raises money to help the disabled and their families. Of the 45 million direct-mail solicitations her office sends out in a year, 11.5 million contain personalized return address labels. There's a phrase several direct-mail experts used in talking to me—that you need to get to "the top of the mailbox." A gift, with your very own name on it, gets the solicitation letter that extra attention.

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"We don't want people to feel guilty," says Kim Haywood, director of direct response fundraising at the March of Dimes, which began in the 1930s to fight polio and now focuses on prevention of birth defects. Haywood's direct-mail campaigns raise about $65 million a year. She says $45 million of that comes from packages with return address labels and a personalized notepad, mailings she calls "the centerpiece of our direct response effort."

In test mailings, Haywood has pitted a sailboat against a flower. The flower gets a better return. The March of Dimes now targets males with manly labels featuring golf and fly-fishing. When I wondered whether there were enough fly fishermen in the United States to make the trout and rod a winner, Haywood explained, "It's aspirational." (We might suggest trying images of polo ponies, maybe a French château.)

"We raise money to help save babies, but part of our mission is awareness. We want the March of Dimes brand recognized," Haywood said. Thus, Debra, when you use the labels, the envelope containing the telephone bill or the thank-you note to Aunt Phyllis becomes an advertisement for the charity. The American Lung Association, for example, might get its motto—"It's a matter of life and breath"—out there to be seen by mail recipients, not to mention post office employees. Ditto the American Heart Association's "Go Red for Women" campaign.

When and where the gift labels began is lost in the mists of history. (Any direct-mail consultants out there who can tell us how the practice began?) It seems like a throwback to a time when people actually wrote letters; the practice might appeal more to the older potential donor. These small gifts can also come in handy for us all when we're sending out 350 Christmas cards.

As to your emotional state, do not feel guilty. You didn't ask for these labels; they came unbidden. I am a little worried, though, about your boyfriend's state of mind, specifically his habit of poking fun at you for somehow cheating. He may not be aware that this kind of teasing has a sting in it. You are a generous person and a willing donor, but that certainly doesn't mean you have to respond to every solicitation in the mailbox. You are free to choose to give to the charities that matter to you, unswayed by marketing gimmicks. Tell him you're going to give to the charities whose missions match your values. If it's convenient for you to use the return address labels some other charity sends you, you're doing them a favor.

—Constance

Do you have a real-life do-gooding dilemma? Please send it to ask.my.goodness@gmail.com.

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Constance Casey is a former New York City Department of Parks gardener and writes the monthly "Species" column for Landscape Architecture Magazine.

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