They’re wily ones, those charity people.

Being the bleeding heart that I am, I have at some point given to pretty much every kind of non-profit you can imagine. So I’m in a good position to know.

The solicitations come daily, crammed into every free inch of space in my teeny New York City mailbox which certainly wasn’t designed for such torture (nor was my postman). Aside from the standard cache of magazines and bills and catalogs, some days I get up to a dozen different pleas for my generous help, often times two from the same organization–one thanking me for my recent contribution, the second asking me for another.

So you can imagine what my hallway entry table looked like this week when slathered with a month’s worth of unopened mail.

The direct marketing tricks just to get you to open the damn things could put Publisher’s Clearinghouse to shame. Oddly shaped envelopes, handwritten addresses, torture updates from Amnesty International, a blurb above the Planned Parenthood return address touting “a message from Blythe Danner and Gwynneth Paltrow inside.” And then there’s the good old OPEN IMMEDIATELY stamp. Which you do. Of course. Only to end up entirely pissed that the URGENT VERY URGENT matter had to do not with your recent tax bill, but with the campaign of a democratic mayoral candidate in South Dakota that neither me nor the rest of the Emily’s List addressees will ever help get elected.

But if you actually make the time to open the envelopes, you are witness to the true ingenuity that is crappy graft. Or crapft.

The bleeding heart blackmail tactics used to be pretty basic – a couple sheets of free self-adhesive return labels preprinted with your name and either a) the American flag b) birds c) little heart-wrenching pastel drawings made by sick children. It’s a brilliant plan: You feel bad throwing out two perfectly good sheets of self-adhesive return labels preprinted with your name and the American flag (or birds or little heart-wrenching pastel drawings made by sick children) and yet you feel bad using them without sending in a little donation. So pretty much what you do is put them aside, in a junk drawer or a little crevice on your desk between the computer and the pencil case. There they remain, gathering dust and curling up at the ends, until you move addresses. At this point of course, you feel perfectly justified tossing them.

Or, you could always just make a donation.

These days, apparently mere address labels are not enough to pry open the checkbooks of cash-strapped liberals. I receive free greeting cards from Gay Men’s Health Crisis and City Meals-on-Wheels. “Signed” photos of Bill Clinton from the DNC. Membership cards, however useless, from NARAL and the ACLU (although I admit I like being able to call myself an actual card-carrying ACLU member). I received a world map from Unicef, various wallet-size 2006 calendars, some kind of plant guide from the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, a prayer flag garland (whatever that is) from the Campaign for Tibet, and a magazine from the Nature Conservancy.

In return for the Nature Conservancy magazine, I not only make a contribution every year at Christmas for my stepfather, I make extra sure that it goes directly into the recycling pile and not the garbage. Seems the right thing to do.

But the ultimate in coercive direct marketing ploys came from the American Diabetes Association, whose most recent crapft was a nickel.

A nickel.

Five cents, glued just inside the plastic address window because, honestly, who in their right mind throws out money?

Not me.

I tore open the envelope, rolled the dulled coin between my thumb and forefinger, then realized I was now in a bit of a quandary. I could pocket it, sure, but is that right? I mean, I’m taking a nickel from people who could be using that money to help folks with diabetes. Shouldn’t I send them something in return? A nickel, at least? (Or, more likely, 25 bucks.)

Then I realized, here it is. The actual cash-money value of guilt: Five cents. The amount of money that buys not even a gumball these days. The amount of money you can be short at a deli, and the clerk will say, “eh, don’t worry.” The amount of money that would fall out of my wallet and roll under a supermarket register and I wouldn’t think anything of it. For five cents, I was sitting at my desk writing a check to help cure diabetes.

Wily, I tell ya.

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