My Goodness

Save the Mails

How to circumvent PETA’s manipulative direct-mail fundraising tactics.

Do you have a real-life do-gooding dilemma? Please send it to

Dear My Goodness:
The other day we got a fundraising letter from PETA. Inside there was a
survey that posed questions while leading you by the nose through factoids about the trade in dog and cat fur, culminating in a request for a donation. My 9-year-old daughter read it and wanted to donate the contents of her piggy bank. I wasn’t going to squash her charitable urges and in fact said I would match her donation. I think PETA does decent work. But I also walked her through the letter, pointing out how it was manipulative.

I don’t want to encourage these letters; when I give money, I want it to be in a manner that gets the most money to the organization, not to a marketing company. So I thought I would give directly through PETA’s Web site. Is this an effective strategy?


Dear Peter,
Two good things happened here. Your daughter responded generously, and you backed up her gift. And you helped her see that the PETA letter was written to evoke an emotional response rather than reasoned consideration.

One thing occurred, though, that isn’t so great. You write that you don’t want to encourage these letters. The donation you and your daughter sent in is the one action that guarantees the arrival of more fundraising letters.

So, first, here is a very useful list of what to do to cut down on incoming mail. It comes from the American Institute of Philanthropy’s Charity Watch, a sort of Consumer Reports for donors.

No part of the donation you two made will go directly to a marketing company. A query to PETA brought an e-mail statement from Washington D.C.-based public-relations representative Jaime Zalac: “One hundred percent of every donation made goes to PETA; neither the list broker nor the exchanging organization receives a percentage.”

Your name might have been found from a past donation to an environmental or animal-welfare group. Charities seeking donations often exchange lists. A polar bear protection group, for example, might exchange its list with PETA hoping to capture some animal rights supporters with a soft spot for bears. Nonprofits also purchase lists through list brokers. Though it’s technically correct that the list broker receives none of your donation, the broker is paid, and that counts as an administrative expense. Hiring an outside professional fundraiser, by the way, is not in itself a bad thing. Doctors Without Borders, among other groups, chooses to use professionals to find new donors in order to save money on full-time fundraising staff.

A PR rep declined my request to put your question directly to the senior vice president for development at the group’s Norfolk, Va., headquarters, despite my protestation that I needed to speak to someone with responsibility for fundraising, not to a PR person.

The president of a list brokering firm that counts PETA as one of its most important clients (along with the Sierra Club) was wary: “They told me you might call. Any information is theirs to give.”

I’d hoped to get an idea of the group’s strategy to gain new supporters, and
how your name got on the PETA list. I had to be content with a carefully worded statement delivered by e-mail: “The mailing that your reader received is a prospect mailing, which is a very traditional method of acquiring new donors, subscribers, or supporters. This means that the address has been exchanged or rented to us by another company or organization for a one-time use. We use several hundred lists consisting of names from various sources for direct-mail fundraising purposes. Among our sources are magazine subscription lists, lists from other nonprofit groups, and lists of buyers from catalogs.”

For example, from Names in the News, you can rent the Sierra Club members “enhanced master file”—300,992 members with ethnic, age, income, and lifestyle information.

How to escape? Don’t have a phone. Don’t buy anything by mail. Don’t subscribe to any magazines. Don’t donate to charities. That was the advice from Alan Sharpe, author of Mail Superiority: How To Run a Profitable Annual Direct Mail Fundraising Program. PETA, he said, defines an ideal prospect and then seeks where to find that potential donor. One likely scenario is a search for dog and cat owners in big cities. The lists can be sliced even finer. A list broker who preferred to remain anonymous told me he could quickly pull up 1,000 Boomer-aged Americans of Finnish extraction who own dogs weighing more than 35 pounds.

And, surprise, surprise: Children are not exempt from the marketing push. targets your daughter’s age group directly, and seeks out animal lovers from 13 to 21. “Don’t think about younger donors strictly in terms of money raised,” Joel Bartlett, assistant director of marketing at PETA, told an audience of fundraisers recently, “It’s not about what you can squeeze out of them today, but about beginning and cultivating a lifetime of giving.”


Do you have a real-life do-gooding dilemma? Please send it to

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