Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Free Stuff From Charities: It’s All a Mind Game

Author: Nick
Category: Money
Topics:

i trade you large money bills for small flowers

Dear Friend,

I am writing to you today to request your assistance in [feeding the homeless / rescuing the rainforest / saving the endangered African spotted owl]. We desperately need your help to overcome this problem. We hope you can find it in your heart and your wallet to give generously to this worthy cause.

Enclosed with this letter you will find some [customized address labels / holiday greeting cards / money-saving coupons] as a thank you for your generosity. Even if you can only give [$5 / $20 / $27,000], it will go a long way toward helping those poor [homeless / rainforests / birds].

Sincerely,
Some Charity

Look familiar? You’ve probably gotten these kinds of solicitations in the mail many times—charities looking to guilt you into coughing up a donation. Sometimes they enclose a “free token of their appreciation” like those ubiquitous address label sheets, all in an attempt to pry a few dollars out of you. And perhaps you’ve given in to these “desperate pleas” and sent a couple of bucks to charities like the National Foundation for the Association of Agencies. If so, then I’m afraid I must inform you that you were fooled by one of the oldest psychology tricks in the book.

It’s a simple tactic, and charities have been using it for decades to “con” you out of your cash. Here’s how it works:

  1. Charity gives you something of nominal value for free.
  2. Charity doesn’t make it easy for you to refuse or return the gift.
  3. Your mind may trigger the irresistible urge to return the favor.
  4. You return the favor many times over with a gift far more valuable than theirs.

At least that’s how the charity wants it to work. And guess what: it does.

Okay, so maybe you’re not in the group of folks who send money to every charity that “gifts” you with address labels and greeting cards. But plenty of other people do it—more than enough to make it heavily profitable for these charities to send out labels and cards and all sorts of other crap to every mailbox in America.

Here’s another example you might recall from the late 1900s: airport Hare Krishnas. If you flew frequently, you’ve probably seen these groups of bald religious dudes in orange robes soliciting donations from weary travelers. Some of them would give away flowers, seemingly as an innocent gesture of generosity or perhaps as a religious practice. In reality, they were giving you something of little value in hope of triggering that psychological urge to return the favor with even just a dollar or two. And since frequent airplane travelers are typically of above-average wealth, they more often received fives, tens, and twenties. The Hare Krishnas raked it in, all for just the cost of a few bunches of flowers.

So what do I do when I get a free gift from a charity? If it’s useful, I’ll keep it. If it isn’t, it goes in the trash. Do I feel bad about keeping these gifts without sending in a contribution? Not one bit, and I’ll tell you why:

  • It’s all a clever ploy. Charities know what they’re doing by sending you these free items. They know all about how the mind works, and they’re really hoping to trick it into entering automatic generosity mode. If all they wanted to do was give you a gift, they could do that without enclosing a return envelope!
  • Most gift-giving charities are horribly inefficient. Whether by accident or by design, most of the charities who resort to this sort of bribery to solicit donations are just not that charitable. Too high of a percentage of your contributions will go toward employee salaries and administrative costs. I save my money for charities I know will use almost every dime to directly help those who need it.
  • If they don’t get the message, that’s their fault. There are charities to which I have never donated a penny, and yet they send me a fresh batch of address labels every year or so like clockwork. You would think they’d save repeat gifts for those who give in return, but they don’t. It’s just another sign of how poorly some of these mail-gift charities are run.

My advice to you: pick your own charities, and give to them like crazy. Do your research first to ensure they’re using your money wisely and that it’s truly going toward a worthy cause.

My advice to these mind-tricking, gift-bribing charities: Drop a 52″ plasma HDTV in the mail. Then we’ll talk.

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