She's 81 years old and she doesn't have a lot of money. But with what she's got, she says, "I try to help as many worthy causes as possible."
What has happened -- and what dismays her -- is that all sorts of fund-raising groups have obtained her name and address and are flooding her with requests for money. In one recent three-day period, she says, she got 35 such letters.
"I'd have to be David Rockefeller and the Chase-Manhattan Bank to help everyone who asks me," says the Alhambra, Calif., widow who lives with her daughter and son-in-law and states proudly that she's still healthy enough to work regularly at their travel agency.
"As it is," she says, "life has become almost unbearable with pictures of starving children and word pictures of what is likely to happen in America if I don't do my part in giving. They tear at my heart strings, and I care. I care a great deal.
"I guess all the charities took me for a sucker, and they all started sending me pitiful letters. I love my country, so I also tried to help worthy candidates -- and they, too, swamped me with requests."
Out of a monthly income of about $675 (she gets free room and board), "I support a little girl in the Philippines and pay $25 each month to Child Evangelism Fellowship, the David Livingstone Missionry Society, Christian Children's Fund and the 'Old Time Gospel Hour,'" a televised church service from evangelist Jerry Falwell.
She wants to keep giving to them, but what she doesn't want is all that other mail from religious, charitable and political fund-raising organizations. o
For three days in January she found her mailbox filled with fancy brochures from such groups as:
The Fund for a Conservative Majority.
Californians for a Biblical Morality
The Handi-Shop of St. Louis, Mo.
The American Security Council
Committee to Save the Boat People
Stop Gay Power, American Christian Cause
National Conservative Political Action Committee (twice)
Friends of the FBI
Gun Owners of California
National Foundation for Cancer Research
The Pink Sheet on the Left
"Sometimes," she says, "I get four and five requests in the same mail from the parties.I have written and explained my situation, but it does no good. Requests only increase. They don't understand I don't have the money.
"My dining room table is just stacked up with letters I didn't have the heart to throw away. So I pray over them."
Her complaint is not a solitary one. The Postal Service, the Council of Better Business Bureaus and even the Direct Mail/Marketing Association say they get protests in the thousands from people across the country who are fed up with unsolicited -- or junk -- mail.
Donors also complain to the Better Business Bureaus' Philanthropic Advisory Service about getting several copies of the same appeal."This strikes me as a terrible waste of money," reads a typical letter, "that ought to be used for charitable purposes."
The culprit -- if an overflowing mailbox vexes you -- is the renting or exchanging of mailing lists, which is a big business.
It's "one more way that fund-raisers do raise money," says spokeswoman Donna Sweeney of the Direct Mail/Marketing Association. "If I had 100,000 donors who gave $10 or more, perhaps another charity would want it."
That's why, she says, the Alhambra woman is getting mail from a variety of organizations. "She has demonstrated she's sympathic to their causes. They're going after the best prospects. Any direct mailer will tell you, your best prospect is someone who donated or bought something from you in the past."
"It's a common problem once you donate to a charity or subscribe to a magazine," agrees Paul Sullivan of the Postal Service's consumer advocate office. "These lists are traded back and forth."
An organization, adds Sweeney, might rent out its list of donors, subscribers or customers for from $25 to $70 per thousand names for one-time use. A simple list of residents within a certain ZIP code would cost less than a more specialized "list of photography equipment users who had bought a Nikon."
In the direct-mail business, there are two kinds of mailing lists, says Julian Haydon, vice president of R. L. Polk and Co. of Taylor, Mich., one of the largest mailing list brokers in the country with 65 million names in its computers. The first are "compiled lists" -- names taken from telephone books across the country, from organization membership lists such as the American Bar Association and from such public records as marriage licenses and automobile registrations.
The other lists, he says, are of people "who buy by mail or take any action by mail. If you bought pecans by mail, it's very likely the pecan firm will rent that list to a company selling candy or cheese by mail." Mailers seek the specialized lists because "you'd go broke" trying to direct a mailing campaign for that kind of product at the general public.
If a toothbrush manufacturer wants to distribute trial samples in a selected market, says Haydon, his firm can mail them out to households, for example, in "Buffalo, Orlando and San Diego." And if a cereal company has its eye on the school-age market, the firm can send out money-off coupons to census tract neighborhoods "that have a high percentage of children in the tract."
With the exception of pornographic material, there are no laws that require organizations or mail-marketing firms to remove your name from a list. But attempts have been made at the state and local level to limit listmakers' access to public records, says Sweeney -- whose association opposes these moves -- but for the most part they have not succeeded. However, a majority of states "no longer rent motor vehicle registration lists."
Most organizations, she says, will remove your name from rental or exchange lists if you write them. "It's industry practice to do so." Her association maintains a Mail Preference Service to which you can write. Your name is added to a computer tape that is distributed to list users, who can then automatically delete it.
In the case of the Alhambra woman, says Sweeney, she should contact any group to which she has given money and make it clear, "'Please do not rent or exchange my name.'" The rest to whom she hasn't responded, "after a certain period of time will drop her name," though that may take "a year or a year and a half."
The best way to get your name off a list, agrees Haydon, "is to write and say, 'Please remove me.' The overwhelming majority will respond. They're happy to. It's unprofitable to mail to people who don't want it."
The BBB's Philanthropic Advisory Service, says vice president Helen O'Rourke, believes fund-raising groups "should honor donor requests for removal of their names from rented or exchanged lists." It's in her service's code of ethics. If they don't drop your name, inform the service.
Some charities, such as the D.C. Lung Association -- which raises about 85 percent of its $300,000 annual receipts from direct mail -- refuse to rent or exchange mailing lists. Says executive director Terry Paoletti: "We're opposed because we don't feel we should violate our contributors' names to generate money."
As these experts point out, there's virtually no way to escape getting on somebody's mailing list. And if you respond to mail solicitation your chances of getting unwanted mail multiply.
But what is one person's bane is another's pleasure. While Sweeney's association may get 2,000 to 5,000 requests a month from people wanting to be scratched off a list, she says, "we get 5,000 to 10,000" asking to be added.