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HEARTS of the CITY

Navigating the Real World

December 11, 1996

Today's question: Charitable groups during the holidays mail such unsolicited items as personalized return address labels or decorative holiday stamps in hopes recipients will send in a contribution. Is it ethical to use these items without contributing?

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Sharon Presley

Executive Director, Resources for Independent Thinking, Oakland

"No matter how much I sympathize with these charities, sending out these items seems like a ploy to induce guilt so that we will buy the products. This is not a proper ethical base for compassionate giving and I resent it. Therefore, part of me says that because they sent the labels out unsolicited, we are under no obligation of any kind, so using the labels is not unethical. Another part of me says no, to use the labels is to accept the implied contract. Probably, the best ethical position is not to use the labels and write a letter to the charity protesting this form of fund-raising."

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Father Jeremiah J. McCarthy

Rector/President, St. John's Seminary, Camarillo

"In the absence of an explicit contract, the receipt of these materials creates no binding obligation upon the recipient. Through these mechanisms, charitable organizations are inviting the public to participate in their programs voluntarily and generously. Such advertising strategies are usually tested by market research. The fact that some people will not make a donation is viewed as an acceptable cost of communicating the mission of the charitable organization. I believe individuals are free to determine whether or not they want to support the organization and they do not have a responsibility to return the unsolicited item."

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The Rev. Ignacio Castuera

Senior pastor, North Glendale United Methodist Church

"The fact that I could have written this response with a 'free' pen sent by one organization seeking support and that I could use a 'free' calculator sent by another fund-raising group to add up my free products indicates how insidious this practice is. Most of us do not even think there is a moral issue at stake, but there is. The kind of honesty required to deal with this goes beyond sending money or returning the items. What is needed is the courage to write to each one of the agencies that sends us these 'hooks' to confront them with the problems in their practice. Good products and good causes do not need gimmicks. I'll gather as many of the unreturned items I have and will send such a letter."

Compiled by Larry B. Stammer, Times religion writer

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