Morton Marcus: Some charitable donations lack effectiveness

Most of my “charitable” donations are made in late December. However, most of them are not for charitable purposes, that is, to assist those in need. No, most of my donations go to “good” causes, organizations and institutions purporting to work for the public good.

These doers of good deeds serve and protect animals, natural areas, minority groups, historic sites, patriotic causes, education, and cultural assets. So many I can’t readily name them all. Every now and then a few political organizations or individuals will get attention in my checkbook.

However, my belief in an organization’s effectiveness is reduced severely by the frequency of mailings, phone calls or emails I receive. When I have mailed off my contribution in December, I do not expect or respect a plea for funds in January or February.

Of course, some organizations are understaffed. Thus, the in-bound checks and the out-bound mailings cannot be coordinated. Others plead in January and February based on the proprietary research of their philanthropic consultants (formerly known as fundraisers).

Whatever the justification, I hope some groups would create a separate box for me to check to limit their mailings to a good annual report, replete with data, sent in the U.S. mail or email, between Halloween and Thanksgiving.

Why do I expect a special code in the files of philanthropic organizations? Because giving for good has been transformed. Now it is yet another academic discipline and job market. It forms the third leg of the social stool: business, government and the philanthropic or volunteer sector.

This third sector often is used by business to goad government into a desired course of action (think of the well-financed political think tanks). Likewise, governments, dissuaded by recalcitrant traditionalists, expect not-for-profits to provide services that do not fit under the government umbrella (think of the historic role of religion in serving the community).

As academic institutions saw business and governmental studies blossom, it was only natural for the study of giving and getting to bloom as well. According to a student report at the IU Center on Philanthropy, the New York School of Philanthropy, established in 1898, was the first higher education program to teach in the field of charity. Today, Indiana University claims its School of Philanthropy was first in the field, as defined by a broader, contemporary understanding of that field.

More important than primacy, however, is the size of the nonprofit, tax-exempt sector with its 1.1 million organizations. Of these only 279,000 were required to report revenues that nevertheless exceed $1.7 billion. These include groups with charitable, scientific, literary, or educational purposes.

(Data are for the 2012 tax year, which shows how up-to-date the information is from the IRS.)

Surely there must be software today to spare me from the all-too-frequent appeals and allow more efficient gathering of necessary funds.

Morton Marcus is an economist, writer and speaker who may be reached at