The Price of Giving

By Jeffrey Page

I’ve never understood the logic of United Way. Operating through voluntary payroll deduction at several places I’ve worked, their pitch was that if I agreed to turn over, say, $10 a week to United Way, United Way would do me the honor of using my $500 a year to support various charitable endeavors.

It made no sense to me and I never participated. Why support the middle man when I can cut him out? United Way has rent, salaries and other administrative expenses to pay. Guess where that money comes from. United Way of Dutchess County, for example, spends about 8.2 percent of its revenues on administration, according to an online charity watchdog called This means my $500 would really amount to $459 for people in need.

Since this column is ultimately about Haiti, I should note that Doctors Without Borders spends 1.1 percent on administrative expenses.

I acknowledge that the people who run United Way have to make a living. I acknowledge it, but I don’t support it. Instead of paying them to distribute my charitable donation, I can choose which causes I want to assist and contribute directly to them. This is not complicated; I do it every year.

Now comes word from the Huffington Post and MoveOn that as Americans contribute huge amounts for Haitian relief following the earthquake – and making many of those donations on plastic – the credit card companies are getting rich.

Huffington reports that such credit card contributions are subject to the same “administrative fee” that credit card companies collect from airlines, rental car companies, your local liquor shop, department stores and every other business we patronize with our plastic charge cards. In the case of charitable giving, the banks’ cut is 3 percent.

So here it is again, the uncharitable fee imposed for offering charity. Make that $500 donation on your credit card and understand that the recipient agency gets only $485. Through this 3 percent cut of the action, banks and credit card companies rake in an estimated $250 million a year.

If you devised a scheme to withhold 3 percent of your donation and chalk it up to your own administrative expenses, you’d be ridiculed by friends and shunned by strangers. But when banks do it, it looks great in their annual reports and makes for a great announcement at their shareholder meetings.

Now, during the Haitian catastrophe, Huffington reports that Visa, Master Card, American Express and Discover are foregoing their 3 percent fees – until the end of February. As if to suggest that the rehabilitation of Port-au-Prince and the rest of the Haitian western half of the Island of Hispaniola will be complete in another 39 days.

I called Visa and was told by a customer service rep that donors can have the 3 percent fee waived just by asking. I wonder how people know about this. Then I called Visa’s public relations office to ask about this, and they sent me a copy of a press release in which Visa essentially congratulates itself for donating $200,000 for Haitian relief. Not exactly the question I’d asked.

Remember your checkbook?

A modest proposal: If you want to help the Haitian people, leave your plastic in your wallet. Instead, write a personal check to the charity of your choice and know that your donation – $500, $50, or $5 – remains intact.

Jeffrey can be reached at


One Response to “The Price of Giving”

  1. LeeAgain Says:

    Thank you, thank you, thank you for pointing this out. For years I’ve wondered how people could have so much money that they needed a special organization to give it away for them. None of the charities I know of have ever refused a donation made directly from the donor. Have we gotten this far away from dealing directly with people? Or is it an elitist thing to be so far removed from the poor that we won’t even deal directly with the charities that serve them?

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