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Handling Unwanted Mail and Telephone Solicitations from Charities

Photos of starving children and smooth talking telemarketers can be difficult for some people to resist, especially elderly people.  Older folks may be lonely and enjoy having someone to talk to, even if that someone wants something from them.  Or, there may be a desire to feel part of the larger world, because the world as they once knew it has shrunk due to circumstances such as retirement, the loss of mobility, and/or the deaths of friends and loved ones.  Regardless of the situation, once an individual makes even a small contribution to a supposedly worthwhile cause, the risk of receiving an avalanche of mail or telephone calls increases.  This occurs because small contributions don’t cover the cost of soliciting those funds, so charities may sell donor information to try to recover some of those costs.  In addition, when the government established legislation for “Do Not Call” lists, political and nonprofit organizations were exempted.  So how should telephone calls and mail of this type be handled?

Let’s deal with telephone calls first.  An individual can request to be added to the Do Not Call list, which may reduce the number of calls received from for-profit telemarketers that have been hired by a charity to solicit donations.  To have your name added to the list, call 888-382-1222, or log on to  If you decide to speak with a caller, find out who the caller is (whether a volunteer/employee of the charity or a telemarketer) and how much of a donation goes directly to the charity (by law they must tell you).  Ask the caller for written information about the purpose of the charity, its operations, and its financial statements, then review this information and do some research on your own to determine if the charity is one you desire to support.  If so, contact the charity to find out how to contribute directly to it, so that you prevent a telemarketer from taking a portion, or even all, of your “donation.”  In any event, avoid giving out any personal information, such as bank account/credit card/social security numbers, over the phone. 

For mailing lists, there is no method of completely removing your name from all lists, but there are some steps that can be taken to reduce the amount of unwanted mail that you receive.  One is to write to:

 Mail Preference Service
Direct Marketing Association
 PO Box 643
 Carmel, NY  10512

Specify that you would like your name removed from both commercial and nonprofit organizations’ lists.  You can also write to charities directly, and include the address label from the envelope which contained the donation request, since certain codes on the label may help the organization determine which list your name came from.  Making donations anonymously can help reduce having your name “shared” on a list.   If you make decide to make a charitable donation, see if the organization has an “opt-out” list or privacy policy, and request that your name not be sold, rented, or exchanged.  If a charity you wish to regularly support sends you too much mail, contact the charity directly and request that they reduce the frequency of their mailings.  Letting them know that your giving will be contingent on their compliance with this request may be helpful.  For older folks who may be tempted to give every time a mailing is received, discussion about a schedule for giving and assistance to maintain a concise and easily accessible record of their donations may be required.  A final word of caution about mailings is do not allow yourself to be pressured by organizations which send “gifts,” such as address labels or greeting cards, to try to entice you to donate.  These “gifts” can result in higher fundraising costs for the organization, and since you did not order them, it is illegal for the organization to demand payment. 

The above tips are recommendations by two charity watchdogs, Charity Navigator and CharityWatch (formerly the American Institute of Philanthropy).   When considering the efficiency of charities, CharityWatch recommends that at least 60% of a donation should go toward program services.  Highly efficient charities may spend 75% or more on direct services. When your charitable dollars are given to the most effective and efficient charities, there is a greater chance of improvement in the situation you are trying to help. Charitable giving that is not well thought out or planned can create frustration and financial difficulties for older persons who may not be as sharp as they once were.   For questions, concerns, or information about specific charities operating in Pennsylvania, information is available from the Bureau of Charitable Organizations.  Visit the Department of State website at, and click on “charities” in the left hand column. 

Karen Kaslow, RN
Keystone Elder Law