Tuesday, July 27, 2010

This Post is Quite Different from any you've ever read!!

I recently a letter from WETA (public TV) which I quote from:
This letter is quite different from any we've ever sent to you. For years we wrote to you about WETA's great programs and the need they filled in your life. Today, I must write to you about WETA's needs. And if friends like you don't respond to them, there will be far less programs to enjoy.
There is something wrong with this letter: I have gotten the exact same letter from them for about 4 years now. Hence the statement This letter is quite different from any we've send to you is not just false but verifiably false.

While I expect letters to exaggerate I do not expect to have easily verifiable lies that do not even help their cause. So why did they do this? I do not know. But whatever the reason, it is sheer incompetency. Hence I will not give to them. This raises the following question:

If a charity (or whatever Public TV is) asks for money they can exaggerate how much they need it. Should they?
  1. Some readers will say GOSH, they really need the money! I better give!
  2. Some readers will say They always need money. I am not going to bother.
We also have here a societal problem. Since many (legitimate) charities exaggerate about how dire their situation is or how serious their problem is, after a while it all gets tuned out. We have here a  Prisoners Dilemma problem- each one thinks (correctly?) that if they exaggerate their problems they will get more money. But if they all do it the public gets cynical and gives less money overall. (NOTE- I do not know this to be true, but I am curious. If anyone does know then let me know.)

How can they get out of this trap? I do not know. However, the least they can do is to not say things that are obviously false. There may be a well defined Game Theory or EC problem here. Or it may be a public policy problem. We won't know until its solved.

UPDATE IN May 2016: I keep getting these letters and got one today.

UPDATE IN July 2017: Got another letter today

UPDATE IN Sept 2017: Got another letter today

UPDATE IN March 2018: Got two in the month.

(I got some in between March 2018 and now but now I report it)

UPDATE IN JUNE 2022: Got one this month. 


  1. I would say THIS Post is quite different from any you've ever seen:

  2. Certain web-sites/organizations provide good fact checking for charitable donations. For example www.givewell.net. Another example of charitable mistruths that is verifiably false, but less easily so, can be found here: http://blog.givewell.org/2009/11/30/smile-train/

    Charities (like politicians) often feel that they are doing what is right, and so lying to you is justified. Unfortunately the judgments of charities (like politicians) are not always correct.

    There are additional charities that are dedicated to improving the function of other charities. A lot of the discussion revolves around the charity-donor relationship. For a pretty intellectual approach to the problem check out Givewell's blog and the links you can find there.

  3. This reminds me of my former bank in Portland, ME, who for a few months sent us a letter every week or two that started out, "I know we don't say it enough, but we are grateful to have you as a customer."

  4. I only give to charities where the CEO/President's salary is less than $X a year, where X is a reasonable amount to me. If they're not open with this information, then they're not transparent. In general, the more transparent an organization is with their finances, the more trustworthy and responsible it is.

  5. To previous anonymous: in the US all charity organizations must file a 990 (except for Churches). This form contains the CEO’s salary. Have some fun. Look up the salaries of CEOs of your favorite charities.

    While CEO salary should not be out of line, GiveWell (I think rightly) points out that what is really important is how much good the charity will do with your gift. The assumption that overhead (like CEO salary) is wasted money can be harmful.

  6. The assumption that overhead (like CEO salary) is wasted money can be harmful.

    Only if it's way above average or if the salaries of management are excessive.

  7. To previous anonymous:...The assumption that overhead (like CEO salary) is wasted money can be harmful.

    I am the anonymous who posted before you. Where in my comment did I make that assumption?

  8. To previous anon.: I didn't mean to imply that you did say that (though I can see how you could read it that way if you chose). That "..." you have includes a paragraph break. If I were more diplomatic, I would have additionally first agreed that transparency is quite helpful; next said that some minimal transparency is required by law; however qualified this by saying that some people (maybe not you) in a zeal to simplify things as much as possible, simplify this required transparency an unhelpful amount (to a single number, the overhead ratio) and imply that this number is important (which it sometimes, but not always, is).

  9. To Grant:

    You don't have to be "diplomatic" to me, but you do have to write clearly. I did not know that a paragraph break means that you were no longer addressing me.

  10. @billie

    "This letter is quite different from any we've send to you"

    We've send ? Grammar ?

  11. To Last anon- I was quoting directly,
    that is what the letter really said.
    Their bad grammar, not mine
    (though it is quite reasonable to think it might be mine given past postings).

    To all- My fear is now bogus charities doing these things. My fear is legit charities (and WETA is legit) doing these things we get bombarded with so much that we tune out.

  12. Last post was from me, GASARCH, did it
    wrong so it came out Anonymous.

    GASARCH (in case this one comes out wrong)

  13. On the bogus versus legit front, I received a spam message for a conference with the same name as a "real" conference. It mentions the indexes and digital libraries to which the proceedings will be SUBMITTED (note, not accepted, just submitted). The location was the first clue this was not the well-known conference. The surcharge for additional pages was another.

  14. The surcharge for additional pages was another.

    Some legitimate conferences (anything with ACM proceedings, for example) do charge for extra pages.

  15. Some legitimate conferences (anything with ACM proceedings, for example) do charge for extra pages.

    OK, bad example then. This conference also charges you for additional authors or for submitting more than one paper, and charges you LESS to attend if you are not presenting a paper.

  16. @GASARCH

    >Their bad grammar, not mine
    >(though it is quite reasonable to >think it might be mine given past >postings).

    very cute. i like ur point.

    but point here is that if it was their spelling mistake then we can assume that (since they are not theoretical computer scientists/ mathematicians), there's something bogus going on.

    Proper charities do spent a lot of time on nailing down these appeal emails.

  17. I am the next anonymous.

    Sorry, I could not stop my self.

  18. I am the previous anonymous.

    Now we have an indirect self reference.

  19. As you wrote correctly, exploiting such things as the reaction of people to requests for charity leads to a big problem.
    But not only do people give less money. Those who really need it will also get less money if people don't distinguish exaggerating requests from warrantable ones.

    So exaggeration (or more general: egoism) is useful for single ones from the evolutionary point of view, but not for those who do the right thing as seen from our social point of view!

    Thus all people who like society are advised to USE THEIR BRAINS WHENEVER POSSIBLE and not tolerate such behaviour for the sake of all - especially themselves ;)

  20. I still get these letters but I decided to leave comments about them
    here so I can keep track.
    I got the

    This letter is quite different from any we've every sent you

    letter in Jan of 2016.

    bill g.

  21. Update- got a letter in Sept 2016