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Good Will Is Getting Lost in the Mail

January 08, 1987|JAMES A. BROWN | James A. Brown, former chairman of the broadcast department at USC, is associate professor and chairman of the broadcast and film communication department at the University of Alabama, in Tuscaloosa .

Have you ever kept track of all that stuff that comes into your mailbox, through your hands, sometimes to your eyes, occasionally answered by way of your checkbook? Neither have I--until recently, when I wearied of repeated appeals for urgent help from needy organizations to whom I could have sworn I had recently contributed.

The sophisticated mass mailing capability of today's support-seekers may be smothering those supporters.

This is one man's mailbox, and the movement of appeal mail therein over a period of five months, April through August, 1986. These do not include junk mailings. My count was only of appeals by nonprofit organizations with established reputations and worthy purposes.

In those five months, I received 255 items from nonprofit organizations for an average of 51 appeals a month, or more than two items every day except Sunday. In a year that would come to more than 600 appeals. On some days, five or six or even nine such appeals arrived in the same mail. Multiples were received on several days in succession. For example May 23 produced five letters, May 24 three, May 26 three, and May 27 six. On July 11 there were nine. The days of July 22-26 turned up two, one, eight, four, and three letters, to which were added five letters on July 30, three on July 31, and four more on Aug. 1.

Most of us don't have the money to give every several days to each of the hundreds of presumably reputable organizations serving others. Like most of us, I try to be open to each appeal, appraise its work and my resources, and then contribute what I can. But now I have despaired of being treated with consideration, and so do not intend for a long while to be bothered any more.

Samples of patterns in five months' mail:

By far the most outlandish use of the mails for promotional purposes was by James Roosevelt and the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare. They sent massive, thick, oversized mailings and 26-page newspapers and certificates gilded in simulated gold and glossy membership cards and return envelopes no fewer than 15 times from April to the end of August. The postage alone was worth a good bit. The printing of elaborate multicolored booklets and folded broadside sheets cost a small fortune. The massive budget to do this confounded me, although I favor what they state they are about.

I realize that lobby pressure must be heavy and continuous to have impact on Congress on these complex and significant matters. But the mailing procedure has overwhelmed and frustrated me. I quit. No longer do I open anything emblazoned with his or the organization's name.

Next most insistent, and another group whose purpose and ideals I generally subscribe to, is People for the American Way. Their mailings numbered seven during the five-month period when I studied the contents of my mailbox. They emulated Roosevelt's glossy express-mail envelope as well as sending a four-page newspaper and sheafs of reprints of newspaper clippings from around the country.

Beyond mere repetition of a single organization is the redundancy for a cause or project by several similarly motivated groups. For example, American Brotherhood for the Blind's letter was received Aug. 23; the previous day came one from Opportunities for the Blind, Inc., which also sent a second mailing that arrived eight days later.

Similarly, on June 6, I received two sets of the same mailings from then-House Majority Leader Thomas (Tip) O'Neill on behalf of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee; I also received another that day from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee itself. Perhaps they plan this, because the Democratic National Committee's letter that arrived May 12 was joined in my box by letters from Sen. Edward Kennedy for the Fund for a Democratic Majority, and from the same Rep. O'Neill for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. Or isn't anyone talking to anyone in the Democratic Party these days?

Anti-cancer fund-raisers scattered appeals from their affiliations through the five months. The National Foundation for Cancer Research sent five letters, the United Cancer Council mailed four (the last ones just two days apart in August), the American Institute for Cancer Research mailed two, and the U.S. Cancer Research Council sent only one--a total of 12 mailings for contributions to beat back cancer.

Among high mailers were Handgun Control and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. They each sent six mailings.

Now, most of us are involved with activities or organizations reflecting our personal life styles, ideologies, and concerns. Two such areas for me are the American Indians and Roman Catholic agencies. Here's the count:

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