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Hilary Dunne Ferrone: Doing Good, Well

It’s the end of the calendar year. For some, this means holiday shopping, parties, sending greeting cards...and a mailbox full of year-end appeal letters from non-profit organizations. According to Charity Navigator, from the days leading up to Giving Tuesday in late November, to the last days of 2016, nonprofits will receive 41% of their annual contributions, with 10% coming in the last two days of the year! (Charity Navigator, Nov. 1, 2011) https://www.charitynavigator.org/index.cfm?bay=content.view&cpid=1302

The National Center of Charitable Statistics has found that giving by individuals, as opposed to foundations or corporations, accounts for 72% of all contributions received by nonprofits. (National Center of Charitable Statistics, 2014) http://nccs.urban.org/nccs/statistics/charitable-giving-in-america-some-facts-and-figures.cfm

If your inbox and mailbox are like mine, every day of December brings well-crafted letters with a sense of polite urgency wrapped in stories of the organization’s accomplishments, it’s critical role in the community, and its hopes for the future, accompanied by compelling images.  And, if you’re like me, you experience a twinge of guilt when you toss an unopened or merely skimmed letter into the recycle bin or delete it immediately from your server. Solicitations from large, national institutions are fairly easy to dispose of, unless their mission is of specific interest to me. Rather, it’s the letters from small, local non-profits, surviving on a shoestring, that make me feel like a heel when I leave them unanswered.

First, I suggest we drop the guilt. We can only do so much -- most of us have a limited amount of money to give away. The rate of return on these mass mailings is 5-10%. Organizations know this going in -- if it wasn’t worth their while, they wouldn’t be putting in the time and effort required to craft a good letter nor, in the case of printed material, incurring the production and mailing expense. Which leads to my second suggestion: beware the poorly crafted letter! It needn’t be written by someone with a PhD in English, rather it should simply convey the organization’s appreciation of you, and how your support has led -- or will lead -- to success. This is their chance to woo you. Unless you know and care deeply for a non-profit -- and therefore can see past a weak solicitation -- look for an organization that presents itself thoughtfully, with not too much flash: you want to see that they’re using their money carefully. And, it goes without saying, if it’s a small local group and you’re a previous supporter, the solicitation should be personalized in some way.

But, if you’re a new donor, how do you decide who to give to? I say, once you’re convinced of a nonprofit’s good standing and ability to achieve its mission, follow your heart! Think about what you love and value. There are no bad reasons! The successful appeal letter taps into emotions and is a call to action -- but ultimately the choice is yours. If you do decide to become a new donor, you can be sure that this time next year you will find a renewal appeal in your mailbox!

Hilary Dunne Ferrone has worked in the nonprofit and government sectors for the past 20 years, including serving on the policy team in the New York Governor’s Office of Storm Recovery. She currently serves on the board of the Fund for Columbia County and is co-chair of Berkshire Country Day School’s capital campaign.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors.  They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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