Ruminations and recipes from a small kitchen in a big city.


Charity begins at home.

Late morning. I was on the phone to yet another 1800 number listening to yet another 'menu'.

If you want to give money, press one: you're first. To increase your monthly direct-debit donation, press two: we'll be with you in a millisecond. To hear a heart-warming story about a dog who would have died except for someone's $50 donation, press three. If you have no heart, hang up now.

It was the twenty-fifth 'charity' I'd called that day. They call themselves charities, but they are collection agency call centres for non-government organisations.


She averages a dozen request-for-money letters a week. I help her collect them from the letterbox, because she can barely reach it nowadays. She is in her late eighties and elderly widows are gold for the charity sector.

Hence the torrent of mail. The fronts of the envelopes have faces with big, sad eyes and short headlines which telegraph the next death sentence that could be delayed or stayed via a quick reply, with money.

I explained to her how they work, but she didn't quite understand. Of course, she has been giving money to one or two genuine benevolent organisations for many years. For example, the Columban Missions who produce the iconic (literally) annual calendar that has graced the kitchen wall of every Melbourne Catholic household for decades (apart from those who have long since abandoned the church and embraced agnosticism or atheism or jedi or asatru or whatever - until they have children, of course, and then they come knocking on the presbytery door to get their kids into the school. "Yes, of course we go to Mass!")


I was on another call and having gotten through to a person, I repeated my request.

"I'd like to remove a name from your mailing list, please," I said, patiently, waiting to see what reaction I would get this time.

Sometimes they ask 'why?', in contravention of the Australian Direct Marketing Code of Ethics. I've worked in this business - indirectly, in an advisory capacity - so I know what they are allowed to say. If someone requests a name to be removed from a mailing list used for the purposes of raising funds, the relevant body may not query the request or put up any barrier, such as asking why. Particularly 'why?' in an aggressive tone. They are allowed to ask your identity.

But this particular person, a well-spoken and friendly woman who sounded in her forties, did not ask why.

Not only did she not ask why, she also told me she would inform the list broker.


The list broker is the person who buys and sells your mother.

By paying an NGO a large amount of money, he is able to gain unlimited access to the details of their entire mailing list.

He can then sell these details to other interested parties.

Of course, the NGO quite often initiates the process. After extensive data collection, any organisation holds a valuable and unique asset which is worth a great deal of money.

It is worth a great deal of money because what every fund-raising organisation wants is - in their own jargon - "pre-qualified prospects". In other words, people on the list are more likely to donate again because they are already confirmed donors. And you can request to buy a list demographically tailored to your own business; for example, 60-plus widows with eastern suburbs addresses. Plenty of money and nothing to spend it on apart from getting the tennis court swept and the chimneys cleaned. Send 10,000 of those with a request for a minimum donation of $50 clothed in a brochure dripping with emotional-blackmail and pictures of sad, dark eyes with the heartbreaking bits in the text double-underlined, and you'll - even with a reply rate of a conservative 50% - net $250,000 for one mail shot.


If you see a reassuring statement somewhere, you think it exists everywhere. But it doesn't. "We will not pass on your details to any third party" does not exist with many organisations. Some make you tick a box about the size of an ant's head if you "wish not to receive correspondence from charities in whose work you may be interested". Couched in those terms, ticking the box seems a little mean-spirited.

But "whose work you may be interested in" is an altruistic disguise of its literal meaning, which is: "Thank you for not ticking the box! By not doing so you are allowing us to sell your details to a list broker who will then on-sell it to other organisations for a lot of money! Thank you again!"


The friendly lady was telling me she would inform the list broker that the name was to be removed from his entire list, as it was not authorised by the individual donor. That's pro-active. She's probably a revolutionary, white-anting the charity industry from the inside.

1 comment:

Dr. Alice said...

Good for you, and good for the kind lady. We get this in the States too. At a conservative estimate, 45 percent of my mail now comes from charities. (Another 35 percent is demands for political causes.)