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The loser's circle

Many organizations are increasingly enticing donors with sweepstakes

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DISPOSABLE CAMERA IN HAND, the balding, gray-haired man sits in his leather recliner by the front door, confident a limousine with a trunk full of cash will arrive shortly. He is still in his dark blue suit hours after returning from the Sunday service. After making hundreds of donations to charitable organizations, this Pennsville, N.J., man has been assured repeatedly that he is in the running for a huge sum of money. He is in the "winner's circle."

Fred Dohner, also of Pennsville, says this image of his 90-year-old father will remain fixed in his mind. For 15 years the elderly man has participated in various kinds of sweepstakes, but lately he has also been donating $600 of his pension and Social Security income each month to charities that organize sweepstakes contests.

With competition among charities on the rise and charitable giving declining in a faltering economy, many charitable organizations have resorted to sweepstakes to enlarge donor lists and support, according to the National Consumers League. But some say this tactic just encourages gambling, especially among the elderly, and corrupts the notion of charitable giving.

"Congratulations Mr. Resident," reads one sweepstakes mailer from the Defeat Diabetes Foundation in St. Petersburg, Fla. "YOU WILL RECEIVE THE FULL $5,200 CASH AWARD upon confirmation that you have and return the winning Certificate of Advisement Reply Form in the enclosed envelope." The award letter concludes with a request for a financial gift, which isn't necessary to win. "Hurry and respond today. Don't miss out on the $5,200 CASH that could be YOURS!"

A mailer from the National Cancer Research Center includes an urgent request to send in a "Mail Audit Delivery Notice," which increases chances of winning the $1 million prize. A representative at the center refused to comment on the sweepstakes fundraising practice, and the Defeat Diabetes Foundation told WORLD it does not do telephone interviews.

But Phil Kraft, president of National Veterans Services Fund, which also runs a sweepstakes contest, insists the method is suited to human nature. "It seems that people are more willing to participate in the sweepstakes than to respond to charity," he said.

Cancer Fund of America, which provides cancer patients with needed services, gleans 8 percent of its income from those who respond to sweepstakes mailers. President James Reynolds admitted he has mixed emotions: "I don't like games of chance because I think most people doing it are trying to get something for nothing."

Still, the cancer fund sends sweepstakes mailers to those donors who give repeatedly. "There is a market of people we could only get a contribution from through sweepstakes," Mr. Reynolds said. "Do we say we won't mail to them? We can take the money and do good with it."

Sally Hurme, a lawyer with the American Association of Retired Persons consumer protection department, says the elderly often are interested in giving to charities, but even legitimate charities take advantage of that propensity.

"Once you have participated just once in a sweepstakes, the likelihood that your name is going to be sold to other similar operators is 100 percent guaranteed because you're now identified as someone who's willing to part with money based on the chance that you'll get something in return," Ms. Hurme said. "It's hard to say when it crosses the line--when am I making a charitable gift or seeking the sweepstakes?" She said it's important, especially during the holidays, to make a giving plan and to know exactly where the money will go.

Participating in charity sweepstakes may not lead to a gambling addiction, according to Chad Hills, research associate for Focus on the Family. But he believes there is need for caution. "Gambling and chance tend to fly in the face of the traditional American work ethic--i.e., work hard, get an education, and contribute to the betterment of society," he said. "The something-for-nothing philosophy, however, pays off for the few at the price of many. It is societal cannibalism."

Fred Dohner asserts that charitable sweepstakes undermine the biblical concept of charity. "Giving to these organizations is good if your heart is in the right place," he said. "But the sweepstakes hook pollutes the whole thing from a Christian perspective." Recalling his father waiting for the limousine that never came, he added: "It takes away the guilt of gambling because it goes to a good cause, but something's wrong with this picture."

--Dorothy Moore is a World Journalism Institute student