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Joan Wickersham

Keep the cap

A nonprofit should invest in its cause, not on giveaways

By Joan Wickersham
March 4, 2011

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DEAR NONPROFIT Environmental Group:

Thank you so much for the T-shirt. What a surprise! When I sent you a contribution of $35, I thought you were going to use it to buy land, thereby helping to protect open space, endangered species, and water. But no: According to the receipt you sent, you put almost half of my donation toward the “fair market value’’ of the “Nonprofit Environmental Group Long-sleeved Logo Tee.’’ Wow.

You shouldn’t have.

Really. You shouldn’t have.

This week you also sent me a free note card collection, which I didn’t ask for and won’t ever use. I’m sure the cards are printed on recycled paper, but still. They’re going straight into my recycling bin. With them came a letter in which you thanked me for my support and asked me for more support. I can check a box at the bottom of the sheet — where it says “Thank you for the beautiful notecards!’’ — and pledge to give more money. If I do this, you will thank me by sending me a Nonprofit Environmental Group Logo tan cap.

Here’s a suggestion: Let’s stop thanking each other. I get that you’re grateful for my support. And I’d be grateful if you would use it — all of it, minus whatever it costs to staff and run your organization — to buy land.

This week you also sent me your magazine, as well as another solicitation for money. Taken all together, you sent me a total of 1.25 pounds of stuff in the past week alone. Browsing your website, I found a handy carbon footprint calculator, which I was able to use to see how much your mailings may be contributing to global warming.

Assuming you shower all your 1,000,000 members with this same 1.25 pounds of attention when they pay their annual dues, you fill at least three Boeing 747s with thank-you gifts and mailings, thus creating, by a conservative estimate, between 1,800 and 2,000 tons of carbon dioxide. Goodness knows how much paper you waste. And this is what happens with the members who only give you $35. Imagine the emissions when someone sends enough money to set in motion your mailing of the Nonprofit Environmental Group Logo tan cap!

“Your first-class stamp will save us much-needed funds,’’ you say, somewhat plaintively, on the front of each of the many Business Reply Mail envelopes you send me so that I can send you more money. Really? Do you really need my stamp on the envelope so that you can save 44 cents? Well, sure, I’m happy to help out — but maybe you’d be less hard up if you stopped sending me T-shirts.

Look. I have other sources for clothing. I don’t need your T-shirts or caps or umbrellas or tote bags. And I’ll manage without your notecards, calendars, and coffee mugs. I worry that you have gotten carried away with the notion of branding. Do you think that if you splash your logo everywhere, you will become the Coke or Ralph Lauren of the eco-set? That organic gardeners will try to impress one another by wearing the Nonprofit Environmental Group Long-sleeved Logo Tee while composting, or that bird watchers will envy the cool-looking guy who lugs around his binoculars and telescope while wearing your tan cap?

It’s possible that by borrowing the high-pressure, high-frequency strategies of corporate America, you’re managing to raise a lot of big money. And maybe you don’t care that I, a small $35-a-year donor, find these tactics annoying, wasteful, and more than a little hypocritical.

But I suspect you need your many $35-a-year donors. And in your frantic attempts to win me, you’re losing me.

Somewhere in the middle of all this week’s mailings, I found my membership card, on the back of which you’ve printed “10 Tips on How You Can Be an Everyday Environmentalist.’’ You advise me to carry reusable water bottles when I run errands, and to reduce my meeting travel by trying video conferencing instead. Thanks. In return, here’s a tip for you: Stop sending out all this wasteful junk, and spend your time and resources on the work your members rely on you to do.

Sincerely yours,

Joan Wickersham

Joan Wickersham’s column appears regularly in the Globe. Her website is www.joan wickersham.com.