Junk mail from environmentalists

Apparently when you buy a house, all sorts of groups decide that you must have money that you want to give them. My junk mail levels have exploded in the past couple months.

A lot of it is catalogs from companies I've never heard of, home furnishings and the like. A fair bit of it is realtors—what part of "just bought a house" do they not understand? But quite a lot of it is from nonprofits that want me to donate money.

My donation list is full up, so I'm going to turn them all down. But I wanted to call out one organization in particular for making me not want to donate to them:

The Sierra Club sent me a big envelope stuffed with paper.

It contains two petitions to send to Congresspeople. It contains a donation form. It contains a four-page letter explaining why I should donate. It contains a little "act now" flyer (repeating info from the letter, I think), and a little flyer claiming that Sierra Club has been "Named America's Most Effective Environmental Organization." (Hey, Aspen Institute! Would you have given them that title if you knew how much paper they're wasting on junk mail?) It contains a glossy full-color flyer about the nifty 1892-style rucksack they'll give me if I join. It contains a full-color sticker to apply to my car window. It contains a business-reply envelope, of course, but that's normal.

And it contains a huge (roughly 2' x 3') full-color glossy map of the United States, with dozens of cities on it, colored in green and brown. The back of the map lists information about a dozen endangered, threatened, or at-risk species across the US.

Oh, yes, and most useless of all: Two stickers, each one about 15" x 1", each showing a tiny one-year-long Sierra-club-branded calendar, starting with November 2009 and ending with October 2010. What does the Sierra Club have to do with calendars? Glad you asked. On the back, they each say: "Affix this calendar strip on your PC keyboard, your desk or anywhere else you need a calendar. Every time you see it, you will be reminded of the important contribution you are making to protect America's wildlands." Presumably by noticing that America's trees are being cut down to produce wasteful useless material like this.

I guess this whole ridiculous package must be an effective recruitment tool, or they wouldn't do it. But to me, it says "We care so much about environmental issues that we'll waste a large amount of paper (plus money for postage) to send completely unnecessary junk mail (and much more of it than any other nonprofit) to people who aren't even members."

Sorry, Sierra Club; I'm not interested in paying for you to send out glossy fold-up US maps and calendar stickers to everyone who might possibly send you money someday.

Huh. I seem to be kind of cranky about this. Guess I feel more strongly about it than I thought.

Anyway. Into the recycle bin with all of it. Except the letter, which I'll hold onto so I can call the 800 number in the morning and get off their mailing list.

. . . Wait, stop the presses! There's another candidate for Most Wasteful Environmental Organization!

A little further down in my stack of papermail was a large-size envelope from the National Wildlife Federation. It contains the usual plea letter (only 2 pages), return envelope, glossy flyer for their donation premium (a blanket), and address stickers—but it also contains a full-size full-color 18-month wall calendar titled "Treasures of Wildlife."

By sheer quantity of paper wasted, it's probably roughly a tie. However, I'm inclined to cut the NWF a little bit of slack, on the grounds that (a) the calendar is actually useful as a calendar (I might use it if I didn't otherwise have one), (b) it contains useful and relevant bits of info, and (c) it contains several large cute pictures of attractive wild creatures.

Still. NWF, come on. You're an environmentalist organization. Why are you wasting all this paper—and all this printing and mailing money—sending out junk mail to random strangers?

Again I suppose it must be effective. But it sure turns me off. I won't be adding the NWF to my list either.

Runners-up in this little contest (they all sent junk mail, but none of it was all that much more paper than most junk mailers):

  • National Parks Conservation Association
  • Audobon Society (bonus points for not providing a phone number to call to be removed from their list)
  • National Resources Defense Council (Cons: used a full-size 8.5"x11" envelope, with alarmist "How will this wolf pup survive . . . once its pack is gunned down?" message. Pros: less paper than the others, and only one sheet of the paper is glossy color, and there's a helpful pie chart explaining that they spend only 11% of their money on fundraising)
  • World Wildlife Fund (small envelope, not much paper, but all of it is glossy. And of course they include address stickers; I now have enough of those to last me about ten years, at my normal rate of sending papermail)

I suppose I may as well add a runner-up in the non-environmentalist category: the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society has sent me three identical mailings in the past couple months. Each one contains a pack of address labels and a nickel. Y'know, I sympathize with their cause—my mother died of leukemia—but I've always disliked this fundraising ploy, which they've been using on me for years. If I had a nickel for every time—oh, wait, I do.

12 Responses to “Junk mail from environmentalists”

  1. Susan

    I get about a billion charity solicitations, many of which include address labels or notecards, but the New York SPCA wins some sort of a prize for wasteful solicitation-gifts. They sent me a big fleece blanket, featuring dreadful artwork of a puppy with some flowers. A fleece blanket! From a group I’ve never given money to! Bizarre.

    • Jed

      Susan: A blanket? Wow.

      Your comment reminds me to mention that one reason I was so annoyed by all this junk mail is that I go way out of my way to avoid it. I always ask the many organizations I donate to to refrain from selling or giving away my address, for example (one organization once assured me, “Oh, no, we would never give away your address—we sell it!”), and I’m on the “don’t send me mail” list for all those organizations, and whenever I get junk mail I call up and get removed from the list.

      So at my old house, I never got any of these solicitations.

      Irilyth: Sorry, I may not have been clear: the Sierra Club didn’t send me a desk calendar. That might have plausibly been useful. They sent me two 15″x1″ calendar stickers, where each month is about 1″x1″. (And no photos or anything; the only adornment is a Sierra Club logo.) Just in case I needed two tiny cheap-looking calendars stuck to my wall (or, as they suggested, to my computer). I don’t have a surface to stick them to; if I did, I certainly wouldn’t need two; I don’t want a non-electronic calendar; if I did, I would want it to be non-minuscule; I certainly don’t want one that I can stick onto surfaces; and if I did, I wouldn’t want it to be Sierra Club branded.

  2. irilyth

    When I was a kid, my mom got a Sierra Club desk calendar for Xmas every year (as a gift from us (mostly my dad I imagine), who bought it, not as a promo from them), and used it as her main calendar tracking type object. My impression is that “Sierra Club calendar” is a thing they’re at least somewhat renowned for, sort of like “Swarthmore calendar” perhaps. :^)

  3. Anonymous

    Yes, environmental organizations that employ lobbyists and organizers and do lots of good work have to pay them, and pay other bills like any organization. Yes, at least in 2009, that still seems to require some direct mail solicitations. Believe me, if email or internet offerings worked equally as well as direct mail, the mail would disappear overnight, because email is dirt cheap and mail isn’t.

    If you care about the environment and the most you can find to be angry about is the Sierra Club trying to support its work, you haven’t looked around very hard.

    • Jed

      Anonymous 1: I’m guessing you’re a development person. I have friends who do development for a living, and you might even be one of them. But whether you are or not, I’m sorry to have annoyed you. Even though I often find direct mail fundraising annoying, I do recognize that it’s an important tool in keeping nonprofits afloat.

      [I edited this comment a few minutes after posting, to improve the politeness level.]

      To respond to your specific points: I do care quite a bit about the environment; it’s one of my big pet issues. I try hard to live as greenly as I can, given various constraints, and I give money to various organizations that promote environmentalism. I was considering adding Sierra Club to my list this year.

      But their mailing was not just an ordinary junk-mail solicitation. I’ve received solicitation mailings from a variety of organizations before. As noted above, I try very hard to not receive such, and I usually succeed. But when I get one, normally it doesn’t cause me to post a rant to my blog; normally, I just call the organization, get off their list, and recycle the mailing. No problem.

      What set me off in this case, though, was the sheer wastefulness of this particular mailing solicitation. In particular, there was no need for the map. I’m sure many people love the map—but I can’t imagine that the map pushes many people over the line into donating significant amounts of money that they would normally not have donated. It’s a US map. It would be suitable for hanging on the wall, except that it’s creased at the folds. It’s too non-detailed to be useful for navigation. It’s way too big to display anywhere other than on a wall. What does the Sierra Club expect people to do with it?

      Here’s what I suspect 90% of recipients do with it:

      They glance at it, they think “Oh, those poor endangered animals!”, and they throw it away. Or recycle it.

      Doesn’t that seem wasteful to you? Wouldn’t a much smaller piece of paper have been just as effective, with less waste?

      You’re right that it’s not wasteful compared to all the other wasteful things in the world. But I’m already working against waste in various other ways, so I figure I can comment on this bit of wastefulness. And this is Sierra Club we’re talking about. It’s a major environmental organization. And the message I’m getting from this mailing is not “We care about the environment.” The message I’m getting is “We waste a lot of money and paper in our fundraising efforts.”

      As I noted in my entry, presumably it works, or they wouldn’t do it. But I won’t support it.

  4. Anonymous

    Trust me. If there were a way to know in advance exactly who would respond well to a mailing and who wouldn’t, organizations would do it. I’m familiar with the map you obviously found offensive and am told that many people responded quite favorably. Annoying people is not any organization’s goal. I can also guarantee you didnt get a solicitation just because you bought a house. Someone has some better reason to think you might be interested.

    • Jed

      Anonymous 2: I think you’re right about the house thing; the nonprofit mailings all used the short version of my name, whereas the house-furnishing catalogs (also unsolicited) used the long version, which is what I used when I bought the house.

      So I take it back about the nonprofits contacting me because of the house. But I’m not sure why the sudden flood of nonprofits asking me for money—at my new address—given that I’ve never had this happen before.

      I did ask one of them where they got my name. They said I was on a list of significant Democratic donors.

      Which really annoyed me, because I have never donated to the Democrats.

      I now have a theory: I donated some money recently through ActBlue, a Democrat fundraising site. I suspect that they sold my name. If so, I’m really angry with them. I’ll see if I can find out.

      Anyway, back to the main topic. You say that you know of people who really liked the map. Can you tell me what they did with it? I’m honestly curious; I truly can’t see any reason to send that thing that wouldn’t have been better addressed in all sorts of other ways.

      I can totally imagine that existing members would have enjoyed getting various of the things I got. But sending them out to a prospective member, someone you have no reason to believe is even interested in environmental issues? I still say it’s wasteful.

  5. Vardibidian

    I don’t know the details, but my understanding is that when you donate through ActBlue, you are actually making donations to the campaigns of the candidates, and if so, both ActBlue and the campaign are legally required to make your information available to the FEC, which is legally required to make it available to anyone who wants it. Transparency, you know.

    I just looked you up on OpenSecrets and didn’t find you, so maybe that isn’t it. And, of course, “Federal law prohibits the use of contributor information for the purpose of soliciting contributions or for any commercial purpose”. But I don’t think there have been a lot of prosecutions…

    I’m not claiming to know what happened. But part of the whole business of being able to tell who each campaign is taking money from is that people can tell who is donating. You can, if you like, find out who your neighbors give to, if they give at all. If you know the name of your florist, you can find out if he is a Republican donor and take your business elsewhere; if your waiter knows your name, he can go in the kitchen, look up the data on his iPhone, and spit in your soup if he doesn’t like your politics.

    And the Sierra Club can send you goofy maps and calendars.

    Not a reason to stay out of the fray, really, but worth thinking about.


    • Jed

      Thanks, V. I didn’t donate to a candidate; I donated to the No on 1 and Yes on 71 campaigns. But those may also be required to publish the names of their donors. I know transparency of donor names has been a big issue lately.

      But publishing the names of your donors is different from giving out names on a mailing list. The fact that my name is on a state-published list of people who opposed Prop 8 is fine (I don’t remember whether my mailing address is part of that list or not); but if someone puts together a mailing list of those names, and starts giving it out to lots of organizations as a list of reliable donors who’ll want to donate to those organizations, that really annoys me.

      As it turns out, I’ve now talked to two other organizations that volunteered the info that they received my name and address from the Nature Conservancy. Of course, I’m not a Nature Conservancy member either; I’ve given them money, but it was via a system that I’m almost certain didn’t provide my name or address to them. (A long story.) So now I’m tempted to call them back and ask where they got my name.

      . . . Although this is a side note to the point of my entry here, another piece of my attitude about all this is that I’m opposed to the whole system of giving, renting, or selling mailing lists. I know it’s an important part of how funding works for nonprofits, but in terms of its impact on me personally, I hate it. I have a variety of good reasons for not wanting to receive solicitations from organizations, and I don’t think I should have to jump through hoops to get them to honor my preferences. I’ve spent two hours on the phone in the past couple days getting removed from mailing lists, and I’ve got probably another hour’s worth of calls to make—there were over 60 organizations and companies to contact. (Probably half nonprofits and half “You just bought a house! You must be rich! Buy stuff from us!” companies.) And this is after years of my being very careful to ask everyone I donate to to not send me stuff and to not give out my name to others.

  6. Anonymous

    I hear your objection that you don’t know what people actually DO with the maps. As I’d said, I’d heard that many people liked them. I guarantee you Sierra Club had a reason to think you might join an environmental organization. Organizations target their mailings.

    I also hear your frustration over the waste of paper. As someone who is very familiar with advocacy groups, though, I’d just ask you to try to have a little perspective here. Nonprofits need money to survive. The recession has been especially hard on charitable giving. Targeted “prospect direct mail,” which you got, is not nearly as successful as it was in years gone by, but it is still one of the most successful ways that organizations can get new members and money they need. Again, if email solicitations or internet appeals worked as well, nobody would spend money on mailings. Many blast environmental groups for any money they get from corporations. Groups are trying to survive in a very tough economy. Ironically, a friendlier Administration generally means some decline in members and revenues. New members and supporters have to come from somewhere, and I guarantee nobody intended to irritate you. They’re good people trying to fund their organization’s work.

  7. Anonymous

    Hey, you know how I found this? I was looking for a way to buy the map under question. Honest. So now I know that it came in junk mail, and that’s why I can’t find it for sale. I like it–I collect maps. That’s all I have to say. 🙂

    • Jed

      Latest anonymous: If you want a copy of the map, send me your papermail address and I’ll send you the next one I get. The Sierra Club sent me another full come-join-us packet a week or two back, containing another copy of the map. (One was wasteful; two is ridiculously wasteful.) I recycled it all once again, but I’m guessing they’ll send me another one at some point. So if you want it, let me know.


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