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Tess Vigeland: A few family members have asked me recently what I want for Christmas. It's kind of an awkward question to answer, right? 'Well let's see, I want this, and I want this, and this, and world peace.'
But I'll tell you who's not shy about telling you what they want this holiday season: charities. Nonprofits collect as much as 40 percent of their donations at this time of the year. Much of it thanks to all those fund-raising appeals clogging your mailbox.
Marketplace's Jeff Tyler reports on his own experience with the deluge of donor appeals.
Jeff Tyler: I know it sounds backwards, but charities send money to me. Like this nickel. It came taped to a fund-raising letter. The appeal reads, 'We make every nickel work as hard as possible.'
Really? Is sending money to strangers the most effective way to increase giving? I'll get back to that question in a minute.
First, let's consider just how much charity junk mail the average person gets.
Carol McBride: My name is Carol McBride. And I'm pushing 90. I'm 89.
For the past few years, Carol McBride has catalogued all the mail she gets from fund-raisers.
McBride: Just today, I received 66 address labels, three notepads, 10 Christmas cards, a little magnifier and a batch of Christmas gift tags.
2007 was her biggest year.
McBride: I had total of 868 solicitations. And that was from 338 organizations.
McBride says she doesn't donate much because she doesn't have much to donate. And she generally supports the same causes year after year. Still, she doesn't mind being courted by other charities -- within reason.
McBride: What I really don't like is the repetition from one company over and over and over again during the year. I understand they need to make sure they catch you sooner or later. But once they've caught you, I wish they'd let you go for a while.
That's a frustration shared by many Americans. Ken Berger, president of Charity Navigator, says the overload of solicitations could backfire.
Ken Berger: It actually doesn't just damage that charity, it damages the trust that many donors have in the sector as a whole, because they're getting it from all different angles. And, you know, at a certain point, you can develop a general frustration with the whole lot of them for all this junk I'm getting.
Junk to him might be described by fund-raisers as a 'premium.' That could be anything from a calculator to a T-shirt to a tote-bag.
Remember the nickel I received in the mail? Children's Hospital Los Angeles says for every nickel it spends on that campaign, it makes a dime. The money helped pay for a new $600 million hospital.
Ron Bell is president of ad agency Target MarkeTeam. He says giving away coins can be smart business.
Ron Bell: Many of the things you get in the mail -- like greeting cards or something like that -- are typically much more expensive than just 5 cents. And so, in reality, although people say, 'Why are you mailing out money?' it's actually a fairly inexpensive premium.
Direct mail is still more effective than the Internet in terms of fund-raising. But direct mail is not exactly environmentally-friendly. To attract just one new donor, nonprofits need to send about 200 pieces of mail. That's tons of paper in the trash.
Again, Ken Berger with Charity Navigator.
Berger: The vast majority of people don't even open the envelopes. So it really is a tragedy. An environmental tragedy. This junk mail that is such a waste.
I emailed half a dozen environmental groups asking if wasteful direct mail campaigns undermine their goal of saving the planet.
Just one replied. Jenny Powers is spokesperson for the Natural Resources Defense Council.
Jenny Powers: We recognize the environmental impacts of direct mail. And that's why we've taken steps to make sure we do it as sustainably as possible.
The NRDC sends all its correspondence on recycled paper. Also, Powers says the mailers aren't just about raising money. They help the organization update supporters about issues.
Powers: Direct mail is the most effective way to communicate with our members and fund raise.
Even critics of direct mail find it hard to resist. Ken Berger says Charity Navigator does send fund-raising appeals to some donors. And next year, it plans to send more.
Berger: We've been doing two a year. We may go up to three.
I probably shouldn't cast stones myself. I mean, direct mail is hardly unknown in public radio. Of course, when it's your own cause, junk mailers aren't just landfill -- they're somebody's salary. Maybe somebody like me.
I'm Jeff Tyler for Marketplace Money.
Vigeland: If you want non-profits to leave you alone, contact the Direct Marketing Association. Make sure to block mail from both commercial and charitable organizations.