No toys for you! (On being a skeptical charity donor)

I hate being skeptical about charitable solicitors, but I am.

This evening there was a solicitor with a table display of children’s toys on the sidewalk in front of the Long’s Pharmacy on Middlefield Road, next to a barrel marked for donation to Toys for Tots. In general, I like to make planned donations, and usually only make unplanned donations to people and causes that I know or are reasonably likely to be who they say they are. (Girl Scout cookies come to mind…)

For some reason, this evening I actually took the time to stop at this woman’s display and hear her pitch. The basic idea was that you buy one of her “pre-approved” toys and put them in the donation barrel at the end of the booth. The suggested items were around $20, and at the moment I didn’t recall hearing of Toys for Tots before (it turns out they’re legitimate, and well rated at Charity Navigator), so I asked if she had any credentials or anything else to vouch for her. She had a letter in a plastic sheet protector describing Toys for Tots, but said she didn’t have any ID and no one there would know who she was.

I was starting to vaguely recall something about Toys for Tots (it’s the toy drive run by the Marine Corps), and it seemed they would be better organized than that. The woman offered to call her supervisor and proceeded to dial a number on her cell phone, but no one answered on the other end.

At this point in the conversation I’m thinking I’ve already spent too much time on this and want to leave, but I get out a pen to write down the contact info on the letter in the sheet protector anyway. The woman I’ve been talking with doesn’t offer her name, but volunteers that she’s working for a company called Fifth Dimension Promotions, so I write that down as well, and departed without making a toy or cash donation. I told her I wasn’t comfortable making a $20 donation to someone I didn’t know with no plausible credentials, and suggested that she have Toys for Tots or her company provide her with something for future outings.

Later, digging around on Google, no such company turns up as “Fifth Dimension Promotions”, but “5th Dimension Promotionz” is apparently a multi-level marketer based in San Jose. They don’t appear to have their own web site, but show many listings on various job sites. They describe themselves:

5th Dimension Promotionz is the nation’s leading provider of promotional marketing and event marketing solutions. We work in conjunction with industry leaders in the fields of hospitality, sports, and charities. 5th Dimension Promotionz provides unique cross promotional strategies and product launch promotions. We provide staff to represent our clients at trade shows and sporting events for sampling and product demonstrations, as well as providing sales and marketing efforts throughout our communities.

So, in the worst case, we have a freelance charity promoter, selling toys at what appears to be a relatively high markup in the name of charity, and perhaps even reclaiming the items from the donation barrel at the end of the day so little to nothing ends up going to charity.

In the best case, we have a freelance charity promoter, selling somewhat overpriced toys and using most of the profit margin to pay for the booth staffer and downline MLM, with some additional toys going to Toys for Tots. The donors would have achieved more by giving directly to Toys for Tots, although the promoter is arguably providing a marketing and convenience service. I probably would have donated if I were confident that some of the money would end up in right hands.

Having looked up Toys for Tots on Charity Navigator, it looks like it’s well run, with 98% of funds going to programs rather than overhead. I’m not sure that they even have an affiliation with 5th Dimension Productionz, other than having some extra toys turn up at the end of the season.

I have mixed feelings about all this. In principle, I think most people would like to help others who ask. In practice, I’m reflexively distrustful of anyone claiming to work for a charity or political cause. I was puzzled by the woman and her booth this evening, and was curious enough to spend a few minutes checking it out. I started out feeling kind of bad that I didn’t trust her, and ended up feeling kind of bad that I was probably right. I suspect that 5th Dimension Productionz isn’t doing anything wrong, exactly. The woman staffing the booth is just doing her job, trying to work up the MLM ladder. But at best they’re misrepresenting or conflating their objectives and the Toys for Tots. At worst they’re preying on the goodwill and lack of curiosity of passers-by to separate them from their money in the name of a good cause.

This is why I usually stick with planned charitable donations, other than to people and causes I know.

If you would like to make a donation and be sure that it’s going to Toys for Tots, you can use their online form here.

If anyone knows more about 5th Dimension Promotionz and Toys for Tots or their other charity clients, feel free to comment below.

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