Tuesday, February 06, 2007

A Few Minutes Of Complaint

Andy Rooney

I support a number of environmental groups with annual dues. Although I don't like having to cancel such a membership, when I become irked by a particular group's performance or some of their practices, I cease my support. I've been especially irritated about several such issues this past week, and I'm going to use this platform, such that it is, to publicly air my grievances. Perhaps the organizations' representatives will stumble upon this post and feel just a little bit guilty? Whatever the end result of my kvetching, I’m sure to come off sounding like the curmudgeonly “60 Minutes” commentator, Andy Rooney...but so be it.

Firstly, I’m annoyed that some (if not all) of these environmental organizations sell my address and personal information to other not-for-profit groups. I dislike coming home from work to a mailbox stuffed with donation requests. I receive at least eight such envelopes every week, and a fair percentage of these entreaties are from organizations that share very little, in terms of mission, with the groups that I presently contribute to. For example, I support American Wildlands, but is it therefore reasonable to assume that I’ll also donate to the ASPCA or to Operation Help the Children?

(Update Note: The above example is hypothetical. I've been assured by a representative of American Wildlands that the organization has never shared my member information with other groups. For this, I am grateful. Furthermore, I'm always impressed by AW's personal commitment to their members....and, of course, their continuing conservation efforts.)

Unsolicited non-profit support requests

It's most irritating, though, to receive an appeal from a group to which I already contribute! What sort of confidence does that breed in your membership? It’s hard to feel that your well-intentioned contribution is being put to good use if even the organization's member list isn’t managed with some competence.

A couple of months ago, after receiving a renewal notice in the mail, I renewed my WWF membership online. Two or three weeks later, a WWF envelope was in my mailbox. Instead of the expected renewal confirmation, thank you letter, and 501(c)3 tax receipt, the enclosed letter invited me to join the WWF, as if I were not a member, much less one that had just renewed his financial commitment to the organization!

That sort of carelessness is infuriating. In fact, it’s downright insulting!(Moreover, I continue to receive renewal requests for the extant membership! Apparently, the WWF thinks I'm two different members: one in good standing, the other delinquent.)

But an overfull mailbox is merely annoying. More seriously, given the environmental focus of the Sierra Club, the Natural Resources Defense Council, EarthJustice, and the World Wildlife Fund, one wonders how they justify the wasted paper and energy required for these mailings? I assume that many of the recipients, like me, open each envelope and separate the recyclable paper from the complimentary address labels (unfortunately, my name is misspelled on many of these), but this is small consolation! There’s no question that the goals of the environmental non-profits would be better served by minimizing these mailings.

Tree made from junk mailings by artist Dio Mendoza

On a related note, I often wonder why non-profits don’t take better advantage of the web. I’d much rather receive a bi-weekly or monthly email newsletter than fill up yet another blue recycling bag with paper. More importantly, the point-and-click interface of email updates makes it easy for even the lazy members (along with the more busy members) to participate in an organization’s grassroots campaign. A traditional paper letter might more fully relate the most pressing concerns of the moment and recommend ways in which members can help influence political decision making, but I’d wager that a good number of letter recipients do not take time to even open the envelope and, if they do, do not take the time to call their representatives and voice concern.

If, on the other hand, they can link to the organization’s website and, several mouse clicks and a zip code entry later, submit a form letter to the appropriate parties, members are more likely to help the cause and feel connected to the organization, an important part of the effort. The Sierra Club is taking advantage of this approach and, happily, the NRDC and EarthJustice are catching on, too. Many other organizations – especially the smaller, less endowed groups – have yet to transition, however. I believe that this should be a top priority, as we live in an era of lobbying, sad though that fact may be.

When I do receive a printed newsletter from these groups (or a magazine, as is the case with The Sierra Club’s “Sierra Magazine” and the NRDC’s “OnEarth”), I always read them, usually cover to cover.

All of the groups to which I contribute produce handsome publications, but I routinely find errors in “On Focus,” the bi-monthly newsletter of the WWF. (That's strike two for the WWF, if you’re keeping track!) In the most recent issue, two glaring mistakes jump out. In the “Species Spotlight” feature, the text claims that the jaguar (Panthera onca) was “once found from the southwestern U.S. to northern Argentina,” but that “today it inhabits only the rain forests of Central and South America.” In fact, this range is incomplete. The jaguar is present, in small numbers, in regions where it was once extirpated, including the mountains of Sonora, in Mexico, and parts of the American southwest. The more optimistic wildlife biologists believe that the species may be in the early stages of a remarkable recovery, thanks in large part to the habitat linkage efforts of groups like The Wildlands Project. Were the WWF's “On Focus” feature describing an animal about which less is known, I wouldn’t be surprised to read incomplete and misleading information, but they’ve no excuse in this case; the jaguar is an icon.

On the same page, in a blurb describing a new species of snake discovered in Borneo, the text claims that the Russell’s viper (Daboia russelii) is the world’s most dangerous snake. The statement is debatable. At best, it depends on what attributes one uses to determine “dangerous,” but some herpetologists argue that the Russell’s viper is not the most dangerous serpent, by any standard. Although the species is responsible for many deaths - due to its testy temper and liking of human settlement - the venom of this viper is less toxic than that of many other snakes. More importantly, kraits (Bungarus sp.), another genus of snake, annually kill more people in Asia. I don't understand how the World Wildlife Fund fact checkers let this incomplete information go to press without a mention. WWF is, after all, a wildlife organization; hire folks who actually know something about the animals they're supposed to be working for!

I only caught the above errors because I'm relatively well-informed about jaguars and snakes. What of all the other species I know comparatively little about? And what of the many thousands of WWF members who know almost nothing and wish to learn more? Are we being mis-educated by the WWF newsletters? It appears so.

I plan to let my WWF membership lapse. In my two years of membership, I've not been impressed with the organization at all, the importance of their mission aside.

I’m less of a stickler when it comes to the smaller, more local organizations, but among the funded behemoths, such carelessness is deeply discouraging. If any of the organizations' representatives do happen upon this post, please consider it a call to improve your online resources and message delivery, cut back on unnecessarily wasted paper, and fact check, fact check, fact check. Rooney, over and out.

Photo credit: Rooney picture ripped from www.ukuleleman.net; Random junk mail photo ripped from www.redpac.com; junk mail tree ripped from SFEnvironment


bioephemera said...

Andy Rooney usually isn't so right!

My mom keeps wondering why she gets all these asks from foundations she's never given to - she's totally unwilling to believe in a vast nonprofit conspiracy to sell her personal information. Her naivete is endearing.

The sad thing is, with targets like my mom - people who care but are not particularly well-informed - there probably is very little financial incentive for most groups to proof their promotional materials.(Apparently the implicit mandate to convey accurate information isn't incentive enough.)

Andi said...

I got a request to join Sierra Club about 6 months after becoming a lifetime member. WTF, mate?


Use the link above to get on the "Do Not Mail List". It costs $1 and only lasts 5 years, but I promise you that my junk mail was cut in half.

More info on getting off catalog lists, etc. here:

If you're the treehugger that I smell you are, it's worth it.

Hungry Hyaena said...


Yeah, it's very frustrating...and more than a little worrisome, symptomatic of severance from that great big thing we like to call Nature. Kudos to the groups which do seem to take care, though, especially the smaller ones.


So Sierra screwed up, huh? They haven't done so with me (yet). I'm keeping my fingers crossed. I've been generally impressed with them so far.

As for the no junk mailing lists, thanks for posting the links. I actually signed up months ago and, although much of the truly random junk mailings and catalogs did stop, the non-profit pleas have not. In fact, 2007 has so far been more of a burden. Today I came home to 12 letters, all from outdoor groups excepting one from Amnesty International. I'm really sick of it. The non-profits get around the "offmailing" list and although I understand why, it doesn't work when many of them share their mailing lists. It is an invasion of privacy, I suppose, but, worse still, it's a bloody waste.

Andi said...

*Supposedly*, all you have to do is write "please do not rent, sell, or trade my name or address" on the form whenever you DO donate to or join an organization. Legally, that makes sense... but I wonder if they might just do it anyway?

Anonymous said...

There is something you can do.

Call the 1-800 number that each group maintians.

Tell them you support their work, but that you only want one piece of mail a year and that you do not want your name sold.

They will go out of their way to honor this request. Because they now know your support depends on it.

I know, because I work for a big group. We understand it's a problem. There are big efforts by every group to move donors to online donations. The transition is moving forward, but the older folks still prefer mail, so it may take a while.


Hungry Hyaena said...


Thank you for the recommendation. I will do as you suggest. And I'm happy to hear that you guys are transitioning to more cyber/digital communication.