GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — The letters came in and the money went out. Joan Bailey’s 95-year-old mother gave and gave thousands of dollars to groups who sent mailers with a good story.
“I lost count at 45 different charities that had been soliciting her for donations,” Bailey told Target 8.
Bailey said her mom grew up in Europe during hard times and is grateful for the life she and her family have in the U.S., so she loved giving back.
“I think elderly people like my mom who are good-hearted and kind and giving are taken advantage of,” Bailey said.
Bailey started sending letters of her own back to the charities, asking them to remove her mother from their mailing lists.
She said some of them did — but others just asked for more.
Bailey is a postmaster in a small town in Ottawa County. Even she couldn’t get the charities to stop, so she called Target 8 investigators. Among other things, she wanted to know where the money was going.
Target 8 asked her which charity was the worst — the one that kept sending letter after letter and wouldn’t quit. She picked the Coalition to Salute America’s Heroes.
Target 8 found the Coalition to Salute America’s Heroes is one of the organizations created by the late Roger Chapin, who called himself a “nonprofit entrepreneur” and created some 20 charities over several decades.
Chapin died in 2013 around the time California authorities ordered one of his charities to pay back $2.5 million after finding it spent too much on bloated paychecks and fundraising. His veterans’ charities landed him in front of a congressional committee in 2008.
Target 8 studied the transcript and the video from that hearing to get a first-hand, behind-the-scenes look inside the direct mail charity industry.
Congressional investigators accused Chapin of spending too much on fundraising and not enough on veterans. He had no apology when he testified. In fact, he agreed that only about 25 percent of the donated money actually got to programs to help veterans.
“Direct mail generally nets us approximately $0.35 on the dollar,” Chapin told the committee. “Administrative costs generally run another 10 percent.”
Chapin said it was true for all of his charities and other direct mail charities.
“It’s true for the thousands of other charities in the U.S. that raise $60 billion annually by direct mail,” he said.
From what Chapin and other witnesses told the congressional committee, it appears that charities hire direct mail companies to send out the fundraising letters. One of those companies said it sends out 50 million letters a year with hundreds of different messages.
So why do some people like Joan Bailey’s mom keep getting so many letters?
“How often any individual is mailed is a function of that individual’s own propensity to give,” said fundraiser Jeffrey Peters.
In other words, the more someone gives, the more he or she will receive fundraising letters. And that kind of name on a mailing list is pure gold to fundraisers who spend money sending out mail to a lot of people who never give.
Peters defended direct mail, saying that what has happened in the U.S. is the democratization of fundraising. He contended that direct mail has allowed people who have never donated to charities in the past to contribute.
“Without that, we would be back to the days of rich people letting a few crumbs drop off the plate for poor people,” Peters said.
In an email exchange, the Coalition to Salute America’s Heroes said that it is under new management, is addressing past criticisms and is putting its financial information online.
“[We’re] working to reduce our dependence on direct mail by relying more on direct appeals to our growing list of supporters and other sources but in the present environment, we are still heavily dependent on direct mail and will likely remain so for some time. Without it we could not help deserving veterans,” it said in the exchange.
In 2012, the organization said it took in $17.2 million and spent $3.1 million on direct help to veterans.
Still, Bailey said that she wrote to the organization a half dozen times last year trying to stop the fundraising letters to her mom. So why did the mailings keep coming?
The Coalition denied it preys on the elderly and said it does remove names from mailing lists when asked — but it added it’s “not an exact science.”
The name, it says, might have shown up on other mailing lists used by the vendors the Coalition hires to send fundraising letters. And since Bailey’s mom was making so many donations, it’s likely she showed up on numerous lists.
So what can be done?
Signing up for the Do Not Call Registry can stop some phone solicitors. The impetus for the registry was the relentless hounding of elderly people for money.
There is no such registry for mail, which means people are left to do what Bailey did for her mom: When she realized what was happening, she took control of her mother’s mail. Eventually, her mom moved to an assisted living home because of health issues and her much-used address went away.
Phil Catlett with the Better Business Bureau of Western Michigan said it’s important to watch for people who are vulnerable.
“If you’re advocating for someone who may be vulnerable, you may need to move them into an environment where they’re not taken advantage of,” he said. “You may need to change their mailing address.”