Mark Bult Design: San Francisco, CA, Established 1988

Web design and development for small and large business, e-commerce, b2b, b2c, SAAS, and community websites. User experience design and usability testing.


Saturday, January 03, 2009

2008 charitable giving

In 2007, Velma and I supported worthy causes with a little over 2% of our annual income (here’s the list of charities we supported in 2007). We made a goal of trying to increase that over the next few years to 5%.

Although I took off most of 2008 from paid work, we decided we didn’t want to slacken our efforts to donate to charity. After all, we’re financially pretty stable, we don’t have any debt except for Velma’s student loans, and most importantly, the necessary work done by charitable organizations doesn’t stop just because our income lessened this year.

Since we haven’t done our taxes yet, I’m not sure how much we increased our giving this year, but considering we’re giving to 18 of the organizations we gave to last year, plus we’ve added 16 new ones, I think we’re probably a lot closer to our 5% goal.

An experiment: Our do-not-mail policy
Fed up with the amount of solicitations we were receiving every month, in 2007 we sent letters along with most of our donations, asking charities to stop sending us mail. We spelled out exactly what was allowable and what wasn’t, and we made it clear our continued financial support was riding on their compliance. We decided to keep all the mail we’d receive throughout the year, and see who followed our instruction and who didn’t.

We are happy to report that the majority or our chosen nonprofits sent us no mail whatsoever, or only sent us what we asked for (we made exceptions for a few newsletters we wished to receive).

In December, we tallied up the results and assigned grades to each charity, based on their compliance (note: these grades have nothing to do with performance relating to their organizational missions; we considered that separately).

2008 scorecard
These are the organizations we supported in 2007 and 2008. Most of them received a letter with our check, thanking them for following our request and explaining that our continued support is conditional on them sending us no mail in 2009. We made a few exceptions for some of the orgs whose newsletters we like to receive, and we tell them all they can send us one (but not numerous) renewal notice when our membership expires.

Here are the orgs and their 2008 grades:



American Civil Liberties Union
The ACLU fights to protect the freedoms guaranteed by our Bill of Rights, a document that's in more peril seemingly every year. They are campaigning to close Guantánamo, working against HIV/AIDS discrimination, to reform discriminatory drug laws, and more.

Grade: The ACLU got a C because they sent us more mail than we’d asked for in 2008. We considered dropping them from our ongoing support, but instead decided to give them another chance and sent them a donation with a new letter, again explicitly asking them to send us no mail. Update: On December 31, while I was compiling this list, an ACLU canvasser showed up at our door. Even after I told her three times we’d just sent them a nice, fat check, she kept pushing for a donation. After that, I had to fight the inclination to give them an even lower score. Sheesh.



Amnesty International USA
Most people know a little about Amnesty International, but did you know how broad their focus really is, and how many worthwhile campaigns they have? Human rights violations in China, protection of refugees, corporate accountability, prisoners of conscience, and the crisis in Darfur are among their many campaigns.

Grade: AI got an A+ in 2008 for not sending us even a single piece of mail.



Committee for Green Foothills
CGF is one of our favorite environmental organizations, in part because Velma used to work there and because Mark designed their logo and website. But mostly it’s because they have a 40+ year history of successful grassroots citizen campaigning to keep the farmlands, open space, and hills of San Mateo and Santa Clara counties from being over-developed. If it hadn’t been for CGF’s work over the past four decades, the South Bay and Peninsula would look more like the LA basin today.

Grade: CGF didn’t get scored this year because we never sent them our do-not-mail letter in 2007. However, they got one this December, and we’ll be watching them to see how they fare.



Earth First! Journal
Mario Savio, on the steps of Sproul Hall, said, “There comes a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious, makes you so sick at heart, that you can’t take part, you can't even passively take part, and you’ve got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels, upon all the apparatus, and you’ve got to make it stop. And you’ve got to indicate to the people who run it, the people who own it, that unless you’re free the machine will be prevented from working at all.”

When the law won’t fix the problem, Earth First!ers put their bodies on the line to stop the destruction. Some of the Earth First!ers I’ve met were the bravest, most noble people I’ve ever known.

Grade: The EF! Journal got a B+ this year for only sending us one plea for a donation when their funds had run dangerously low.



Earthjustice
Earthjustice began as the Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund and has provided legal assistance on environmental issues for almost 40 years, representing citizens groups, nonprofits, scientists, and others. “Environmental litigation has been key to preserving threatened natural resources and protecting people’s environmental rights. Lawsuits have protected millions of acres of wilderness and hundreds of endangered species. They have helped improve air and water quality and have forced polluting companies to clean up their discharges.” And I love their slogan: “Because the earth needs a good lawyer.”

Grade: Earthjustice got an A+ in 2008 for not sending us even a single piece of mail.



Electronic Frontier Foundation
The EFF uses advocacy and lawsuits to preserve free speech rights in the context of today’s digital age. Among its many activities, EFF has participated in lawsuits in support of the college students who published information about the major security flaws in Diebold Election Systems, and against corporate and government infringement of the First Amendment rights of individuals, artists, journalists, bloggers, and others.

Grade: EFF got an A+ in 2008 for not sending us even a single piece of mail.



Environmental Protection Information Center
The Environmental Protection Information Center has fought for the North Coast in the courts for years. Headwaters Grove probably wouldn't be standing today if it hadn't been for organizations like EPIC.

Grade: EPIC got an A+ in 2008 for not sending us even a single piece of mail.



Good magazine
Good is a magazine, a website, and a collaboration of people, nonprofits, and businesses who give a damn. I enjoy its’ focus and coverage a lot, and I even love looking at it, as it’s very well designed.

Update: When you subscribe, Good lets you choose a nonprofit to support, and that nonprofit gets 100% of your subscription fee. Last year I chose 826 National, which is the umbrella for 826 Valencia (also known as the Pirate Store) in my neighborhood. Many people who have been to the Pirate Store don’t realize it’s actually a nonprofit that teaches students creative writing skills.

Grade: Good got an A+ in 2008. We received the magazine of course, but no solicitations other than the normal renewal statements.



A Permanent Mark (and Film Arts Foundation)
A Permanent Mark is a documentary film being made by our friend Holly Million about the effects of Agent Orange on Americans and Vietnamese who were exposed during and since the Vietnam War. The Film Arts Foundation is an independent media arts training facility and acts as Holly’s fiduciary agent for contributions to the documentary.

Grade: We didn’t assign a score here because we never sent Holly or Film Arts our do-not-mail letter.



KQED
We donated quite a bit to KQED in 2006, 2007, and 2008, so we were pretty disappointed that they didn’t follow our do-not-mail request. Especially since we listen to KQED FM every day, and we love the programming a lot.

We love KQED so much that we decided to give them a chance to redeem themselves. In December we sent a letter to KQED’s development director, explaining that our request was ignored and asking for a personal note assuring us that it would be followed in 2009, in return for which we would gladly send them a check. To bolster our point, we enclosed all the mail they sent us in 2008. It’s only been a few days since I sent the letter, but I’ll post an update here if we get a response.

Grade: KQED failed with a D. Of the three organizations that utterly failed to follow our do-not-mail policy, KQED was the second worst offender, sending us many renewal notices and multiple requests for upgrade donations.

Update Dec. 31: We received a very prompt, hand-addressed letter from KQED’s chief development officer, to whom we addressed our letter. She was very good about explaining what steps would be followed to complete our request: They would “code your account in our computer system to just send you one renewal request and the occasional invitation to an event” (which is exactly what we asked for), and “merge your two accounts...so the renewal request you receive in the future (next year) will be addressed to both of you” (since Velma and I apparently had separate accounts in KQED’s system). She also included a few facts about KQED’s efforts toward sustainability (she said they have been carbon-neutral for two years and recently installed solar panels on their building), and, of course, she apologized for the confusion. I was very satisfied with her response and we were happy to send their check in the next day’s mail. If all goes well in 2009, KQED should get high marks next December/January.



National Public Radio
Even though we support three local radio stations around the U.S., I love NPR’s programming enough to send them a separate donation. Shows like “All Things Considered,” “Car Talk,” “Fresh Air,” “Marketplace,” “Talk of the Nation,” and “Wait Wait... Don't Tell Me!” keep Velma and I both stimulated and entertained.

I just wish they had a better T-shirt so I could get one for our donation : )

Grade: NPR got an A+ in 2008 for not sending us even a single piece of mail.



Northcoast Environmental Center
I really love the NEC and try to visit when I go to Humboldt County. They do fantastic education and grassroots work on all sorts of environmental issues, from species, watershed, and forestry advocacy to organizing the local Coastal Clean-Up events. Plus they present a local radio show, the “Econews Report,” and publish one of my favorite monthly newspapers, the Econews.

Grade: The NEC got a B- for two reasons: They sent a bit more mail than I’d prefer, but more importantly, they messed up our names on all our mailing labels last year and it took them several reminders before they got it right.



Pachamama Alliance
Pachamama Alliance works with the Achuar, an indigenous group living in the Amazon basin of Ecuador, to develop a sustainability and economic plan that will protect and manage the two million acres of their tropical rainforest territory.

Grade: Pachamama Alliance got an A+ in 2008 for not sending us even a single piece of mail.



Planned Parenthood
Planned Parenthood is a vital resource in a country that’s incredibly backward about sexuality and where most people are hopelessly uninformed and misinformed about health and reproductive issues. They provide health and sexuality info to teens, women, and men, contraception, HIV/STD tests, pregnancy tests, and much more.

Grade: Sadly, Planned Parenthood got an F for sending us too much unwanted mail in 2008. Velma decided they didn’t get a second chance. We sent their development director a letter explaining the reason why, and telling them we were switching our support to NOW for 2009. Let’s hope it makes an impression and starts some internal discussion about donor requests.



Save the Redwoods League
Velma may work there, but that doesn’t stop us from giving them money. Save the Redwoods League was founded 90 years ago to acquire and protect what’s left of the redwoods. You probably think there are a lot of redwoods left. If it hadn’t been for SRL’s work over the last 90 years, there wouldn’t be any. Most of the redwoods in state and federal parks were originally bought by SRL and transferred to public ownership.

Grade: We didn’t assign SRL a score, since we never sent them our do-not-mail letter. They have an interesting policy, however, of not sending mail to any of their staff.



Trees Foundation
Trees is an umbrella support group for scores of small and medium regional groups in Mendocino and Humboldt Counties. They offer centralized support services for their member organizations, including GIS, marketing, fundraising, computer repair and tech support, web development, and graphic design. Our pal Scott Lamorte works there.

Grade: Trees got an A+ in 2008 for not sending us even a single piece of mail.



WBEZ Chicago Public Radio and “This American Life”
This has been my absolute favorite radio program for years now, and I hate missing even one episode. While we listen to it on KQED, I feel strongly enough about the show to support it with a direct donation each year.

Grade: WBEZ and “This American Life” got an A+ in 2008 for not sending us even a single piece of mail.



WNYC and “On The Media”
“On The Media” is my other favorite radio program, airing Sundays on KQED. Like NPR, WNYC creates a bunch of other great programming (“Radio Lab,” “Soundcheck,” and “Studio 360”) and I feel strongly enough about those shows and especially “On The Media” to send them a direct donation each year.

Grade: WNYC got a D grade as one of the worst offenders in 2008, sending us multiple donation requests and other such junk. Like KQED, they got a letter explaining that our prior do-not-mail request was ignored and asking for a personal note assuring us that it would be followed in 2009, in return for which we would gladly send them each a check. We also enclosed all the mail they sent us in 2008. We have yet to receive a response.



Wikimedia Foundation
Wikipedia is truly one of the world’s greatest resources, and truly one of the world’s greatest ideas. I use it almost every day, and even though the slogan is “free knowledge for everyone,” last year I decided we should pay for the privilege with a donation to the Wikimedia Foundation.

Grade: Wikimedia got an A+ in 2008 for not sending us even a single piece of mail.


Conclusions
Our do-not-mail request may seem somewhat pretentious to some: How dare we expect nonprofits to cater to our whims? They’re not set up for special cases, their systems and databases just spit out automated lists and mailing labels.

True enough, too few nonprofits are set up to make exceptions for donors who ask for “special treatment.” However, I suggest that there are several strong reasons why more nonprofits should take the few small, easy steps to allow for such donor requests as our do-not-mail policy. And before the harrumphs start coming from the gallery, let me remind you that Velma and I speak from a position of significant experience in how nonprofit fundraising works. Velma was development director for a nonprofit for 2.5 years, and I was a board member for another nonprofit, including a year as chair of the development committee and several years as one of the the primary liaisons between the organization and its members.

Now, let us address some of the reasons why nonprofits should take seriously special requests such as ours...

It’s not rocket science, and we’re paying them to do it
Nonprofits aren’t stupid, they send out a lot of appeals because it works: It gets them donations. However, most nonprofits know that taking care of their donors also yields results too. Just like a for-profit corporation can build brand loyalty with consumers, a nonprofit that really listens to the requests of its members can count on that donor probably giving continually, and probably increasing their donations over time.

Velma and I communicate this to the nonprofits we support. Our year-end letters, sent with our checks, explicitly praised those organizations that followed our request of the previous year, explaining that was part of the reason we were sending another check. And in most cases, each of those nonprofits got more from us this year than last year. Those that didn’t follow our instructions got an explanation as well, with the hope that it would serve as impetus for a change in the organizations’ behavior, or at least would elicit some internal discussion.

When I worked at Acterra and served on the board, we used a Filemaker Pro database for our donor/membership list. In it we had fields for all kinds of information about each individual or family, like which of our programs they liked to support, how long they’d been members, who their contacts were on the board and staff, and many more. We also had checkboxes for “No mail,” “No newsletter,” “No phone calls,” and “No email.” Hundreds of members preferred to get their news from us via email, so the only time we would mail those people would be once a year, to tell them their membership was expiring.

Let’s face it, any organization can add a new field to their database. And if they can’t or won’t, I’m not inclined to send money to the lazy or incompetent. And just to be clear, it’s not piddling change we’re sending these nonprofits. All of the orgs Velma and I support yearly get between $50 and $500 from us, with most of them above $100. If an organization thinks our $50 or $100 isn’t worth a half-hour of their time to make a minor change to their database, I’m of the opinion that organization’s staff is overpaid already, and they obviously no longer need our money.

It’s better for the environment, and it saves them money
Many of the worst offenders sending out tons of junk mail are environmental organizations. I have declined to support the Sierra Club for years because they send so much junk mail. And worse yet, their mailings always contain things that are difficult or downright impossible to recycle! How many of those static stickers can I use? I like a lot of things about the Sierra Club, but I detest the hypocrisy displayed by their membership department.

Let’s consider the cradle-to-cradle cost of a typical year’s worth of mailings: First, paper must be made, so that’s forests cut down. Even if it’s partly recycled content, it’s never 100% recycled, and therefore some virgin pulp must be manufactured (BAA and Acterra were the only organizations I’ve ever known to have a policy of always using 100% recycled or tree-free paper for their mailings; and guess who urged the boards to pass those policies?).

Then there’s the bleaching of the paper (highly toxic and highly polluting to air and water). Then it must be trucked from a mill halfway across the country to a city. Then it’s trucked from the paper distributor to the printing company (diesel fumes are highly toxic). Then there’s the printing of the letters, calendars, newsletters, envelopes, etc. (the printing industry uses many toxic solvents et al).

Then all those mailings get sent out in all directions, to probably tens of thousands of households all over the country. That’s a lot of planes, trains, and US Postal Service trucks trundling around (more fuel consumption, more air pollution) to deliver little individual pieces of junk mail to various mailboxes.

And what happens to it all? Over 95% goes in the recycling bin, or more likely the trash.

Of course, the alternative is a lot less wasteful of oil, energy, and natural resources: By checking a little box in their database entry for Mark & Velma, all those nonprofits can prevent a lot of waste and pollution, and they even save the cost of printing and postage!




New charities
Along with the above charities which we decided to continue supporting from 2007 through 2008, we decided to support a few new ones last year. Below are the new causes we supported in 2008. They also received a letter instructing them to not send us mail in 2009. I’ll be sure to write an update about how our continuing experiment goes at the end of 2009.



American Institute of Graphic Arts
The AIGA is America’s premier organization advocating for the rights of artists, participating in critical analysis, and advancing education and ethical practices. I decided this year to renew my long lapsed membership.

California Academy of Sciences
The old Cal Academy was one of the coolest places we’d go on field trips back in elementary school. Early in 2008 Velma acquired a family membership for us and we were among those members who got a sneak peek the week before the new facility opened in September. While I was disappointed that the two-headed snake has long since expired, nothing else disappointed. Quite the opposite.

Clean Water Action
Clean Water Action is a national organization that utilizes policy research, political advocacy, and grassroots organizing to enact environmental protections and hold elected officials accountable to the public.

Courage Campaign
The Courage Campaign is one of two nonprofits we chose to support because of our outrage over California’s unconscionable assault on marriage equality.

Democratic National Committee
When a canvasser came to the door early in the campaign season, I was reluctant to give anything to the DNC. I’m not a Democrat or a Republican, and frankly I think both parties screw up pretty bad often enough. Plus I was still pissed about how poorly the DNC handled the 2004 election. Velma, however, gave the canvasser some money. I told him I’d think about donating to the DNC after I’d done some research. Many months later, I surprised myself by being impressed enough to support the DNC.

Environment California
I was impressed enough with this canvasser to give them some money.

Equality California
Equality California is the other nonprofit we chose to support because of Prop 8.

Global Lives Project
This nonprofit was founded by former BAA Schools Group member David Evan Harris. It’s an interesting video and art project that will bring viewers in contact with a taste of the diversity of the globe.

MoveOn.org
Velma donated to get me a Barack Obama T-shirt as a gift. I approve of MoveOn, especially some of their video/commercial campaigns, but I’m a little sick of getting so many emails.

National Organization for Women
Velma Decided we should switch out support to NOW since Planned Parenthood sent us so much unwanted mail in 2008 and we still wanted to contribute to a charity that works on reproductive rights.

Obama campaign
What else can we say? Barack got a few more bucks for his campaign, Velma got a T-shirt.

PlayPumps International
Kids play, water pumps! If you saw our Holiday 2008 Gift for Friends & Family, you already know about this innovative organization working to bring clean water to over 4,000 villages in Africa.

San Francisco Women Against Rape
SFWAR provides resources, support, advocacy, and education to strengthen the work of all individuals and communities in San Francisco that are responding to, healing from, and struggling to end sexual violence.

Slow Food USA
Slow Food USA envisions a world in which all people can eat food that is good for them, good for the people who grow it, and good for the planet.

Tuolumne River Trust
The Tuolumne River Trust promotes the stewardship of the Tuolumne River and its tributaries. Most people don’t realize that much of our water in the Bay Area comes from the Tuolumne. Our pal Peter Drekmeier works at this org.

Women’s Temple
Women’s Temple is a place where women believe in the healing powers of coming together and sharing the wisdom of their embodied spirits with each other. Velma was one of the organizers who took Women’s Temple to Burning Man in 2004.

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Saturday, December 08, 2007

Supporting causes

Updated April 2008: Added ACLU and Save the Redwoods League, which I had forgotten.

Velma and I used to support nonprofits with our blood, sweat, and tears. We first met in a large building full of nonprofits, where we both worked. When you work for an NGO, especially a relatively small, local one, you don't make a lot of money. Sometimes you make very little money (I was making below-poverty-level wages there for a while).

But you don't do it for the money. You do it for the "second paycheck." That's what they sometimes call the feeling you get — maybe it's pride, maybe it's joy — when you get to do work every day that's all about trying to make the world a better place. It's truly a wonderful and fulfilling way of life, if you can hack it.

These days, Velma probably gets that feeling a lot more often than I do (she works for Save the Redwoods League). I mean, I like my work, and I chose CNET Networks partly because I didn't want to work at an advertising agency or someplace where I'd only be selling more useless crap to more people. But while I believe my work's worthwhile, it's definitely not saving the planet.

Getting paid decent wages, however, does have its up-sides. Velma and I are finally in a position these days to save money for our future, and we're even able to give donations to a bunch of organizations we like. Even if we don't get out to Arastradero Preserve to plant native grasses anymore (our own garden gets most of that weekend love), we were happy to be able to support the work of several groups this year with monetary donations.

If any of these organizations sound worthy to you, please consider a gift.



The ACLU fights to protect the American freedoms guaranteed by our Bill of Rights, a document that's in more peril seemingly every year (or is it just every administration?).



I did some work for Amnesty International a long time ago, and I also donated to them a long time ago, but a new donation was long overdue. Most people know a little about Amnesty, but did you know how broad their focus really is, and how many worthwhile campaigns they have?



Mario Savio, on the steps of Sproul Hall, said, "There comes a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious, makes you so sick at heart, that you can't take part, you can't even passively take part, and you've got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels, upon all the apparatus, and you've got to make it stop. And you've got to indicate to the people who run it, the people who own it, that unless you're free the machine will be prevented from working at all." When the law won't fix the problem, Earth First!ers put their bodies on the line to stop the destruction. Some of the Earth First!ers I've met were the bravest, most noble people I've ever known. In the old days I used to donate stamps to North Coast Earth First! but this year I finally decided to subscribe to the Earth First! Journal.



Earthjustice began as the Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund and has provided legal assistance on environmental issues for almost 40 years, representing citizens groups, nonprofits, scientists, and others. "Environmental litigation has been key to preserving threatened natural resources and protecting people's environmental rights. Lawsuits have protected millions of acres of wilderness and hundreds of endangered species. They have helped improve air and water quality and have forced polluting companies to clean up their discharges." Plus I love their slogan: "Because the earth needs a good lawyer."



The Electronic Frontier Foundation is sort of the equivalent of Earthjustice but for the Internet. EFF uses advocacy and lawsuits to preserve free speech rights in the context of today's digital age. Among its many activities, EFF has participated in lawsuits in support of the college students who published information about the major security flaws in Diebold Election Systems, and against corporate and government infringement of the First Amendment rights of individuals, artists, journalists, bloggers, and others.



The Environmental Protection Information Center has fought for the North Coast in the courts for years. Headwaters Grove probably wouldn't be standing today if it hadn't been for organizations like EPIC.



I've been watching KQED TV since I was a tot and listening since I was in my teens and 20s, and for the past decade or so it's been on almost constantly when I'm at home. I've learned so much from KQED radio that I can confidently say it's made me a better person.



“On the Media” is one of the best shows on radio, if you ask me. The media critics at this show keep a careful eye on world media, and fill in the listeners each week with healthy doses of wit and wisdom. I listen every week, even if I miss the air-time and have to download their podcast later. This year I was happy to contribute directly to WNYC where the show is produced.



Pachamama Alliance works with the Achuar, an indigenous group living in the Amazon basin of Ecuador, to develop a sustainability and economic plan that will protect and manage the two million acres of their tropical rainforest territory.



Planned Parenthood is a vital resource in a country that's incredibly backward about sexuality and where most people are hopelessly un- and misinformed about health and reproductive issues. They provide health and sexuality info to teens, women, and men, contraception, HIV/STD tests, pregnancy tests, and much more. We are proud to support the work of Planned Parenthood.



Velma may work there, but that doesn't stop us from giving them money. Save the Redwoods League was founded 90 years ago to acquire and protect what's left of the redwoods. You probably think there are a lot of redwoods left. If it hadn't been for SRL's work over the last 90 years, there wouldn't be any. Most of the redwoods in state and federal parks were originally bought by SRL and transferred to public ownership.



“This American Life” is the other show I can never miss. A few years ago I learned that Chris Ware had done an animation for a live performance of “This American Life,” and I'd seen a snippet of it online. It was awesome. This year I learned that it's actually available as a DVD/book as a premium for donating to the Chicago station that produces “This American Life” (see the “Lost Buildings DVD” description).



Velma's been interested in this little local org for a while, and she's considering volunteering with them. Urban Sprouts works with San Francisco school gardens "to help youth actively engage in school, eat better and exercise more, and connect with the environment and each other."



Wikipedia is truly one of the world's greatest resources, and truly one of the world's greatest ideas. I use it almost every day, and even though the slogan is "free knowledge for everyone," this year I decided we should pay for the privilege with a donation to the Wikimedia Foundation.

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