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  • Jasmin Malik Chua

Why nonprofits give away so much crap

If it’s better to give than to receive, then why do charities and nonprofit groups insist on shoving stuff in our faces?

As anyone who’s jammed yet another stack of return address labels into a drawer or flung a branded tote bag on a heap of other branded tote bags, both direct solicitations and the giveaways they precede or follow have spun out of control. According to a 2016 Texas A&M University study, roughly 60 percent of American nonprofit solicitations include these tokens of appreciation — “donor premiums,” in fundraising parlance — upfront or as a reward for donating.

In a way, the strategy is understandable: The world is a terrible place right now, and the rise of social media and crowdfunding platforms like GoFundMe means would-be donors are stretched thin by a growing chorus of appeals both private and public. (There’s even a term for it: “empathy fatigue.”) Tempting the public with T-shirts, insulated cooler totes, or even clean beauty starter sets is one tactic nonprofits employ to win hearts and pocketbooks.

But experts say the practice is counterintuitive, antiquated, and expensive. It may even provoke frustration, producing the opposite of the intended effect.

No one could tell me when donor premiums began or who started them. The point is they worked — at least for a while. Before we knew it, dangling gifts became the most popular way of coaxing people to crack open their wallets a little more. Public radio, in particular, is a whiz at using donation tiers to spur giving. Want an Oregon Public Broadcasting-logoed reusable straw? Donate $90. Have your eye on an inflatable solar lantern instead? It’s yours for $180.


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