With too many pitches, charities strike out

By John Kelly
Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Jack French considers himself fairly generous. He supports a variety of institutions: his parish, his neighborhood association, his local library "and every kid that comes to the door." He also mails checks to about 25 charities, mostly those that are trying to find cures for various diseases.

And that, he says, is where the problem starts. Every charity he donates to gives his name and address to other charities. They in turn mail him "notebooks, pens, address labels, greeting cards and occasionally mugs, small blankets and wrapping paper. . . . all in an attempt to shame me into putting them on my donation list."

Jack estimates that over the course of a year, he receives thousands of such mailings at his Fairfax home.

Thousands? Surely that's an exaggeration. Or maybe not. Jack performed a little mail survey recently. On a single day, he received a dozen solicitations from various charities. One was to cure a disease that affects men (prostate cancer), one was to cure a disease that affects mostly women (breast cancer), three were to cure diseases that affect men and women, two were to support animals, two were for hunger relief and three were for various children's homes: a boys' town, a boys' ranch and a "mercy home."

Jack estimates that he receives about 3,744 pieces of mail annually from charities. (Twelve appeals a day times six days a week times 52 weeks a year.)

It's common for charities to sell or rent their lists to other charities, said Sandra Miniutti of the charity-tracking Web site Charity Navigator. But some will stop if you ask them to.

"You should ask the charity before you make the donation," Sandra said. "Ask about their donor privacy policy. Basically, you want to know how they're going to use your personal information."

If you donate online, there is frequently a button you can click to opt out of having your information shared with others. Privacy policies for some charities can be found at http://www.charitynavigator.org. If not, just ask the charity, and adjust your giving accordingly.

A home for the holidays?

Rick and Barbara Harries's three-story Victorian house has incredible curb appeal. The fact that it will actually fit on a curb is part of that appeal.

It's a dollhouse, constructed by Rick and featuring six decorated and furnished rooms. The kitchen has red and white gingham wallpaper. The roof is covered in cedar shingles individually trimmed to fit. A splashy red front door sets off the gray and white paint job nicely.

Rick, a bureaucrat at the Department of Agriculture, likes building dollhouses. Barbara, an interior designer, likes decorating them. Both, however, are too old for dolls. So are their college-age children. Which is why they're auctioning the impressive, turreted toy on eBay to raise money for Children's Hospital.

The Burke couple did the same thing four years ago, raising $675.

"This one is kind of a thank-you to Children's for treating our son, David," Barbara told me. David was 15 when he started showing unpleasant symptoms of gastrointestinal distress. Being a teenage boy, he shrugged them off -- for two years. Eventually, Barbara took him to Children's, where doctors diagnosed ulcerative colitis and started successful treatment. David's now in his senior year at Virginia Tech.

The dollhouse kit retails for about $430. That's unbuilt, of course, and without the paint, wallpaper, floor coverings and furnishings. This beautiful house is move-in ready -- if you happen to be 6 inches tall.

To see more pictures or make a bid, go to ebay.com and search for Item 190356314617.

Helping Children's

What happens to your name and address after you donate to my Children's Hospital campaign? Nothing. I send you a thank-you postcard. The hospital sends you a thank-you letter. You are not bombarded with further mailings.

To donate, send a check or money order payable to "Children's Hospital" to Washington Post Campaign, P.O. Box 17390, Baltimore, Md. 21297-1390.

To donate online using a credit card, go to http://www.washingtonpost.com/childrenshospital. To give by phone using Visa or MasterCard, call 202-334-5100. Your gift will be used to pay the bills of uninsured children.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company