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Tracking trash: Kennewick man studies donation requests through mail

KENNEWICK -- Ken Leaf figures he'd be poorer by more than $228 a day -- or about $41,813 for six months -- if he'd agreed to send the maximum to every charity that sent him a donation plea last winter.

Or, if he had decided to give only the minimum requested, he would be out more than $8,623.

Leaf based his conclusions on a painstaking study of 881 pieces of unsolicited mail that he and his wife Margaret received from October through March.

The 83-year-old Kennewick man said he got requests to support churches, the needy, veterans groups, animal welfare organizations and educational foundations.

In addition to the charitable donation requests, that big pile of unsolicited mail included offers to subscribe to magazines, buy books and insurance, donate to political organizations and to apply for new credit cards. Leaf also got a heap of shopping catalogs that included 10 from JCPenney and six from Macy's.

Second Harvest sent six mailings; Toys for Tots sent five; and the Republican National Committee sent 12, making repeated requests for at least a minimum donation of $60, or $255 if the Leafs felt generous.

Leaf -- a retired Hanford worker, Mid-Columbia teacher and former business owner -- said he wanted to draw attention to junk mail through his project.

"It's not a rebellion against junk mail," he said. "You wonder if everybody gets the junk we do. It's an awful lot."

About 30 pounds a week, he said.

Leaf admits junk mail is useful for charities to get the word out about what they do and for businesses to showcase their products. But he said it's a pointless waste to get a letter a week from the same charity or business.

"I would contribute more (to a charity) if I would get one mailing a year," he said.

Leaf did a similar project about nine years ago to tabulate the requests for money, credit card offers and shopping catalogs that he got in the mail. He said the volume of junk mail has not changed much in the years since, though he's seen an increase in the number of organizations trying to raise money for various health concerns and environmental issues.

"They all want more money, of course," he said.

While the American Heart Association in Seattle asked for $15 to $25; Doctors Without Borders sought $35 to $500. MercyCorps asked for $20 to $1,000, Leaf noted in a chart he made, but the ELCA Foundation took the cake with a request for a donation of up to $1,500.

Steve Oates, who owns MediaMax Direct, a Richland company that prints and delivers advertising messages for clients through the US postal services, said he's not surprised by the larger requests.

"Costs have gone up," he said.

Businesses and nonprofits want to cast a wider net so they send more mailers, said Oates, who's been in the business nine years. "The more you reach, the more you sell is the idea."

It's also easier to resell to a former customer than to find a new one, he said.

Oates doesn't call unsolicited mail junk. He said unsolicited information helps plant an idea that may not be relevant to you right now, but that information could be useful later.

The popularity of mail solicitations is increasing because they work, Oates said. "People don't understand the commerce it creates. It brings businesses, products and customers together and also creates choices and competition."

Leaf said he's ordered stuff through catalogs he's received in the mail, but said he does that very seldom.

He also has stopped responding to requests for money without consulting the American Institute of Philanthropy -- www.charitywatch.org. The national charity watchdog service helps donors make informed giving decisions.

The Leafs annually give about 10 percent of their income to their favorite charities, which include Lutheran World Relief, Seattle Children's Hospital and the University of Montana Alumni Association.

But Leaf said most of the junk mail he receives ends up in his shredder, though he saves return address labels from some organizations. He collected 1,700 mailing address labels from October through March.

Occasionally, the Leafs also have received money in their mail solicitations that has ranged from a couple of pennies to a check for up to $2. Leaf said he doesn't respond, feeling that agencies that send money are just trying to make potential donors feel guilty if they don't send money back.

He said he doesn't feel guilty for not sending money in return. "If you send it to me it's OK. I'll do what I want to."

* Pratik Joshi: 509-582-1541; pjoshi@tricityherald.com.

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