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Winter is here.

The chill in the air is profound this time of year as the holidays come around (seriously, carols on ads before Halloween?), and as things turn to messages of giving, I remind myself to be cautious about where the giving goes.

There were two charities I started donating to (I estimate about) just out of high school, not for a tax write-off or for some sort of advertising benefit, but because they were based on ideas that did actual good. A short while after I'd sent in the donation forms, I received letters from both charities that very politely read 'we did not receive your donation' with another form attached to each, so like a schmuck, I sent in duplicate donations. I kept donating intermittently to one of those charities, and I eventually noticed that it was only after I had sent in a donation that I received a 'we did not receive your donation' letter.

All that sweetness, that polite and deferential language and 'our intent is only for the good of others,' didn't change that 'whoops, we didn't get that, would you please send more money?' was the way both of these charities operated. Two organizations with very different causes using very similar 'fundraising' tactics makes me think that this was standard practice for many charities over a period of years.

The money isn't the big issue here - the choice to donate is, and these tactics took advantage of the very people who made the choice to donate in the first place. An environment that conceals with a smile the choice taken out of someone's hands is the wrong environment for optimism and trust.

I know at least the second one of the two I referred to earlier (watch the homonyms, too) has stopped doing that 'whoops' letter. After I sent a complaint through their website. (Just got your newest catalog, Charity Number 2. Season's Greetings, sweeties.)

Lesson learned: ask questions of the charities that are asking you for money, and forget about whether or not the cap-toothed hypemen on the other end see that as churlish.

What percentage of the donations actually go to the programs they're meant to support, and what percentage goes into paying their salaries and pumping up the pathos in those glossy magalogs? Because a low percentage means they're not only taking advantage of those who want to help, but those who need the help as well.

Is the charity looking for a one-time donation, or does the fine print under the blank you're about to sign require you to make a monthly payment? Because once you've signed, they'll assume you're able to afford every month the same amount you just signed away this month.

Are they gonna try to guilt you like a relative that assumes it's easier for you than it is for them to get more of whatever they're asking you for? (I'm looking at you, aunt with the cheap-o purse the like of which I have yet to find.)

By all means, go into the holiday season with all that good cheer. But if you're going to smile, don't let that smile close your eyes as well. (That'll mess up the photos.)

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