The Giving Dilemma; Part 4

So my aunt needed a relatively routine in-patient operation; routine, that is, for someone not 89 years of age.  Because of her advanced years, the doctors played it safe, ran numerous tests, and kept her in the hospital for a total of ten days; and then released her to a convalescent home for several weeks of recuperation.  All totaled, she was away from home for all but a few days out of the month.

Aware of the fact that she lives alone, several of her neighbors and friends among the church ladies volunteered to keep an eye on her house, collect her mail, and generally make sure that the place would not look unoccupied while she was gone.  I drove down to pick her up and bring her home; and was pleased to see that within an hour of her return a number of her friends dropped by.  One woman brought her mail.  Confiding to me that my aunt got a lot of mail, she asked if I could go down to her car to get it and bring it into the house.

I was stunned by what I found.

There, in the back of this lady’s car, were three paper shopping bags.  One, virtually empty, was marked “Regular mail and bills.”  One, half full, was marked, “Political.”  Finally, there was one, full nearly to the top, that was labeled, “Donations.”

Now, we had been aware for some time that my aunt seemed to receive an unusual number of requests from charities; but we had no idea of exactly how many….or of how many she was responding to or how much she was giving.  But there before me sat one month’s worth of donation requests, and they were overwhelming.

I did not give these to my aunt, instead pouring the contents of both the “Political” and “Donations” bags together into one overstuffed large sack, and brought them home.  When I finally had the chance to go through them, I was utterly shocked.  For one thing, the bag marked “Political” did not contain campaign mailings as I had initially assumed.  Rather, they were, every one of them, solicitations from a variety of PACs…in other words, pleas for donations.

Combining these with the ones in the “Donations” bag, I set out to count them.  When I was done, I had 210 pieces of mail, each requesting money; about a third of them containing an assortment of religious trinkets, T-shirts, flag decals, and about 50,000 self-address labels; and each, in its own way, assuring my aunt that by SENDING MONEY NOW, she would be doing her part on behalf of God, Country, all that’s Holy, and our Constitutional Rights. Thirteen other pieces of mail, by the way, informed her that she had won something upwards of $72 million if she’d purchase THESE EXCITING SUBSCRIPTIONS TODAY!

All together there were 223 pieces of mail there, an average of over 55 a week.  Amazing.

More problematic was when I tried to learn more about a random sample of the “charities” that were asking for her support.  Going to Charity Navigator, I could find listings for only four of the ten I pulled from different places in the pile before me.  Of these, one had a Donor’s Advisory attached to it (some small matter of a problem with the IRS), two had received 2-Star ratings (out of four possible), and one had a 3-Star rating.  I went to The Foundation Center’s 990 Finder, and again could not find information for four of the organizations.  One had a website, but said nothing about what it is actually doing with the money it is taking from gullible people like my aunt.

But if you ask her, they are all worthy causes…an opinion she formed because they used several buzzwords that connect with her particular value scale.  When I asked her exactly how many of these “charities” she was supporting, she would not answer me…so I fear the worst.

On the one hand, this might seem like nothing more than a story about one old lady who is not as careful as she should be when writing donation checks.  But I personally believe it represents just the tip of the iceberg in a pattern of systematic financial exploitation of the elderly.  According to a feature produced by the Fox Network and broadcast by many of its affiliates a few weeks ago, an estimated 7 million senior citizens — one in five Americans over age 65 — become victims of financial abuse, a crime that collectively robs them of nearly $3 billion.  While I cannot prove that all, most, or even a significant number of the 223 outfits that seem to be contacting my aunt every month are downright fraudulent, the sheer number, the similarity in their pitches, and the consistency with which they send her solicitations constitute what I believe to be a crime in fact if not in law.

It is also interesting to note that according to the FBI, women over 60 who live alone are particularly vulnerable targets of phony mail and telemarketing scams….women just like my aunt who, in their religious or political convictions, fall easy prey to unscrupulous fund-raisers and so-called “charities” because they far too often believe what they read, do not have the resources to check out the claims made by these organizations, and are perhaps not sophisticated enough to understand that just because a piece of mail tells them they are doing God’s work, protecting important rights, or safeguarding the Constitution, there is no guarantee that they are not being scammed.

Beyond this, as was documented in a TIME Magazine article on cancer research, it is not that most of the organizations seeking money are total scams, but that they misuse or mismanage much of the money they raise. As one person interviewed for the TIME article put it, “The general public is throwing its money away;” a situation made all the worse when one realizes that every dollar that goes to a fraudulent or wasteful “charity” cannot go to a legitimate one that can document the results it is obtaining.

Sadly, my aunt is one of those “throwing her money away;” but the problem goes far beyond her.  Many Americans, but particularly senior citizens, are being effectively penalized for their good natures, their open hearts, and their misplaced trust in the concept that a 501 (c) 3 charity must be on the up-and-up.

While every senior (and virtually everyone else) should put their telephone numbers on the National Do Not Call Registry, even that will not stop every call; and it can do nothing about mailed solicitations.

The Fox Network recommended several things people can do to protect the seniors in their lives from being financially victimized.  The list is worth reading.  But one recommendation –monitor the mail- struck me as a particularly good idea.  Credit card offers are a particularly sensitive issue in these days of identity theft, and they should be shredded immediately.  Magazine subscription scams are another common device to which seniors often fall prey; so the advice it to watch for magazines that your senior(s) wouldn’t normally read, solicitations promising prizes, and renewal and cancellation notices demanding payment. But also, it is a good idea to monitor the charitable requests the senior citizens in your life receive.  If they feel compelled to respond, make sure that you check the requesting organization against both the Charity Navigator and Foundation Center 990 data bases.

Just as we should all be smart about our giving decisions, it is particularly important to make sure that the seniors on our lives are not being quietly and unwittingly victimized by bottom-feeding “charities” that sell one another their mailing lists, promise to end every problem on Earth, and, more often than not, do not use the money they receive in either honorable or productive ways.

If “giving” very often presents most of us with a “dilemma,” it can often be a crisis for senior citizens; and it is up to us to protect them if they can’t or won’t protect themselves.



  • Dom Indelicato

    Great blog and sadly I fear your fears are correct in many cases. My Mom passed away last year and I found she was a benefactor of many “non-profit” causes she got solicited for by mail. Thankfully her contributions were mainly very small, and within her means, but the number she supported did surprise me and I wondered about some of their validity or efficiency as far as what % of donations got to the intended beneficiaries of the cause.

    While there weren’t that many and most were things that sounded familiar or legit, I wish she had known about the sources for checking the charities out you referenced, which even I did not know about until learning of them in your blog piece!

    • And here’s the ironic part: I posted that blog a day or so ago. Today I drove down to see her…and what did i find her doing? Going through about 75 new requests for donations. I dumped them all in the garbage. She looked relieved…

  • Richid

    Excellent blog on a blinding problem for the elderly and their heirs. Unfortunately, a do-not mail registry would be as impossible to enforce as the ineffective do-not call registry…but well worth the effort to accomplish, Doctor

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