• June 1, 2013
  • By Marshall Lager, founder and managing principal, Third Idea Consulting; contributor, CRM magazine

Brother, Can You Spare the Time?

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I've taken up a new indoor sport, one that requires considerable speed and hand-eye coordination: changing the channel when charity spots come on, asking for donations. If the remote control is in hand, I can usually get away before Sarah McLaughlin sings the first notes of "In the Arms of an Angel." You may as well admit it—you do this too.

It's not that we switch to something—anything—else, be it show or commercial, because we're heartless or selfish (at least I'm not). It is a survival mechanism for preserving sanity and bank balances. At heart, I'm a total softie. I would give money and/or time to anybody or any cause that appeared to need it, until I was on the dole myself.

I fall apart at the thought of animals suffering needlessly, as they have no agency and are victims of human cruelty, arrogance, and "progress." Please note, however, that I am a proud omnivore, and while I could happily have cattle as pets, I would have little problem eating their cousins and turning their mothers into baseball gloves. I may hate cruelty and neglect, but not steak—or baseball. (Editor's note: Animal rights activists, please send hate mail directly to marshall@3rd-idea.com.)

What is my issue this month, you may well ask? Nothing less than the plight of the charity marketer. This has got to be one of the most thankless jobs ever, on par with that of the guys who held down surgical patients before the invention of general anesthesia. Your job is to create campaigns that make people feel sad or angry—but definitely guilty—and want to give money to your cause to soothe their consciences. In return, they get the brief satisfaction of knowing they tried to help, but that's about it. There's no confirmation that the money did any specific good—even the "sponsor a child" charities have been known to fabricate children's responses (or even existence). The donor doesn't even get relief from the painfully maudlin advertisements, unless they take up my sport.

What's worse, every communication you get from a charity you've chosen to support is an explicit plea for more money. This includes the letter of acknowledgment and thanks the charity sends when you first donate. "Thank you so much for your generous contribution. Here's an envelope for you to give more!" Necessary, perhaps, but shameless.

When I was a young watcher of public television and they ran pledge drives, the station reps at least tried to maintain the fiction: "The more members we have, the fewer interruptions to our great programming you'll have to deal with." That phrase (paraphrased though it may be) has vanished from public TV panhandling. Then again, so has the discrete pledge drive; every break between shows (and sometimes during the shows) is a request for money.

You can't really blame the public television stations, or any other nonprofit that needs to raise funds through donations. We're all facing hard times, and the first casualty of economic pressure is often charitable giving. There's got to be a solution wherein needy causes get what they need and the donating public doesn't have to suffer emotional abuse. Fortunately, the same CRM technology that gave us individual-level customer history and behavioral tracking provides an answer.

Henceforth, I propose a new model of charitable giving. Each tier of contribution comes with a guaranteed gag period for the receiving charity. Give $50, they leave you blissfully alone for a year. Pay more, get more time away from weepy commercials and begging letters. For a sufficiently high contribution, the charity agrees not to share your information with its partners and supporting organizations.

Basically, it's the same as the organized-crime protection money model, but it can work. As long as they remember not to send a request for more moolah along with your pledge receipt.

Marshall Lager is the managing principal of Third Idea Consulting, which seems to be a nonprofit organization despite all efforts to earn a buck. Donate your thoughts via email (marshall@3rd-idea.com) or Twitter (www.twitter.com/Lager), or visit www.3rd-idea.com.

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