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Why hate junk mail? Here's why!

Junk mail is not needed
Junk mail is not needed

Stirred up by BBC Panorama broadcasting "Why hate junk mail" at 2030 tonight, SOS Children CEO Andrew Cates again appeals for a long over-due rule change to make junk mail "opt in only". SOS Children abandoned charity junk mail seven years ago and has never looked back.

I do not know anyone who likes receiving junk mail from any source. If anyone exists who does, they should be able to elect to receive it. The rest of us should be protected.

Junk mail blocks your front door when you return from holiday, fills your bin, wastes your time working out whether it really is junk, costs money and environmental resources to print and deliver, and then to recycle or put in a landfill. Charities, or even bogus charities, are often among the worse. Junk mail is used to invade your private home with distressing images, attempts to make you feel guilty or even in some cases attempts to defraud.

Try to stop junk mail and you will find it very difficult. There is a "Mailing preference service" which allows you to stop some junk mail if you provide them with a full name and address, but then the loopholes start. Misspelt surname? Then the junk gets through. Slightly different address lay out? Then it gets through. Sent to a neighbours house so it bothers them as well? Then it gets through. Move house and you get a full six months of the treatment. Try a job where you get moved about six monthly (say, a junior doctor) and you will be harassed for years whatever you do. And that doesn't include unaddressed junk mail which few of us manage to block.

Eight years ago SOS Children used to use junk mail, egged on by mailing houses who acted as consultants for the practice. The last mailshot was April 2004, weeks after I was appointed as CEO. The constant effort of working out the next mailing and looking at what the return was on each had been enough to cloud vision of whether it was a good way to behave. How it worked was shocking. Charities spend £100k mailing 100,000 people and roughly a thousand of them (industry numbers from the mailing house, not ours) gave an average donation of £11. Why do they do it when it loses £89,000 on the junk mailing? Because the names of kind hearted individuals who respond are worth more than £89 each. It might take more than a year of follow up mail to recover the £89, and towards the end of the second year they could start using the donations to contribute towards the causes they thought they were supporting.

Shocking though this is, it is how the junk mail charity sector works. If you ever reply to an unsolicited charity mailshot chances are your donation is a fraction of the cost of  them learning you care enough to bother you again. Is it a surprise that in April 2004 we decided to stop it all together?

These days junk mail is antiquated for charities anyway. Junk mail relies on sound bite gut reaction to a photo. Online people have the choice and time to look at charities properly and think about the impact of what they do. Does it actually only cost a few pence to change a child's life forever (not really). How do sponsorship charities help children? They can see what the charity spends their money on and decide what is the most effective way to give (which is probably online child sponsorship).

Without a doubt online is the best way to give to a charity. Pretty much all charities are there (not just the ones who waste money who appear on your doorstep). The charities clearly explain exactly what they do for all to see, or if they don't you can find another one. Anyone who wants to can check the accounts with the charity commission, compare and see if they really are effective. Other channels become more and more desperate as charities up the shock effort to try to get a reaction.

Why doesn't the government make unsolicitied direct mail "opt in only"? Other countries have started to do this. Perhaps they are worried about the jobs in mailing houses, or that the post office needs the revenue. Our trustees were briefly worried we might not be able to grow without Direct Mail! These are backwards arguments. The stone age did not end because of a shortage of stones, the junk mail age is over because a better clearer, cheaper route is open to all. SOS Children have shown new technology provides alternative, more efficient ways of doing things, and greater efficiency has to be in the best long term interest of us all.

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