Hi Sam! The last time I donated to a charity, they started sending me so much spam physical mail, and kept doing so for years after, and I found myself wondering how much it cost them to do that. Would you happen to know what the typical break even point is on this? Like if I donate $5 will all that go to printing and mailing me things for years, so unless I’m gonna donate $20 it’s not worth donating at all? Thanks for your thoughts! 🙂


Interestingly, I don’t know what the break-even point is mainly because I only work with major gifts – we don’t deal with mailings/cold calls and the like. I’ve had a similar experience, where my alma mater sent me a little gift in return for my donation and I was like “….you coulda just kept that cash,” even knowing that the gift probably cost them only about $1 to buy, package, and mail. 

I strongly believe that any gift, at any level, is worth giving. If the charity stewards your gift poorly by sending you endless mail, possibly you’ll want to change where you give, but even if you’re getting a lot of mailing, that could still actually be a great use of your donation, and I’ll explain how.

Say ten people give $5 each. Over the next year, the organization spends $20 on mailings to those ten people. What a waste, right? But they’re banking on retaining five of those ten people (there’s complicated retention math involved, but charities do have specialists who work to increase retention). So the next year, they get donations again from the five people they’ve retained – but two of them are so pleased that they each give $20 instead of $5. From the $20 spent on mailing, they’ve gotten an increase overall of $5 (five people giving $55 instead of 10 giving $50) and the longer someone gives, the more likely they are to increase their gift. If the charity can convert even one of those people to a $100 yearly gift, the money they spend on mailing will be worth it, because the amount people are giving goes up while the amount spent on mailing remains more or less the same.  

They know that this won’t retain everyone, which is why most groups will send you a couple of mailings the first year and then drop it to maybe one or two a year after that. It’s worth it to them to keep you on the mailing list because especially for large campaigns, mail can be printed and sent VERY cheaply. 

The mail you get is, in some ways, a side effect rather than a direct action – to them it’s just part of the cost of fundraising, and even if mailing you twice a year doesn’t work, if mailing someone else twice a year gets them to double their gift, they’ve more than recouped their costs. So you can be at ease that while they may have spent your $5 a while ago, in some ways it was an investment, and is still earning them dividends from other donors. So every time you get a letter from them you can go “Ah! My donation earning other donations!” 

If you don’t want to receive a ton of mail from them, however, you have a couple of options – one, you can give cash anonymously, or give using something like a Visa giftcard, which of course can be time consuming. Also, a lot of the time now you can give via PayPal, especially to larger organizations, which may be the best way to go. 

Two, you can give and then, when you get your thank-you receipt, call them and ask to be taken off the mailing list to save them money. (This does involve having to call them and doesn’t always work – often what works better is asking to be put on their once-yearly mailing only, or ask for only email.) 

Three, if you have the money to spare and are planning on larger gifts, you can invest in a Donor Advised Fund, where the bank holds your money in a special account, investing it to grow it yearly, tax free, and then gives out donations from that money on your direction. This is mainly for more wealthy folks who have a strategic plan for their giving – Fidelity’s, for example, require a $5K minimum to open the account, and a $50 minimum donation to process, though there are some banks that have lower. But it effectively anonymizes your giving because the bank is the one making the gift, not you personally, so your name is only attached if you want it to be. 

I hope this helps! 

I’m in a team that has to actually produce the mailing data and then deal with the donations when they arrive. Frequently I wonder why we mailed someone (the marketing department are in charge of the mailing criteria and know more about this stuff than we do) because they’ve not given in years etc but sometimes it does prompt people to donate again – or perhaps they’re a volunteer and they might not actually donate money but do like receiving the appeals (maybe they feel more connected to us?)

And then like, you also get people who might not respond to the physical mail but leave a legacy in their will to the charity (which in our case is about a quarter of what we raise every year).

I think it’ll change though over the next 10 years or so and there will be fewer physical mailings – a lot of our donors are older and as they uh…”move on”, they’ll be replaced with younger people who prefer electronic communication (and then we get into GDPR etc etc)