Charity Membership – A Cautionary Tale

I admit that computerized algorithms and donor database programs have tremendously increased the efficiencies of charitable organizations, allowing them to reduce overhead costs and push more donated funds into actually helping the causes they were set up to support. However, mailing list and marketing programs still need human oversight in order to comprehend, catch, correct and atone for the robotic behavior of the programs and the data entry personnel interacting with those programs. When the human empathy is removed from the pitch and interaction with current and potential donors, it eventually disappears from the care and concern the organization has toward the very cause it is trying to solve and manage. I feel I am witnessing an example of this with one of the organizations I have been supporting, the American Film Institute.

I discovered the American Film Institute shortly after I came out to attend UCLA’s motion picture/television program in the mid-70’s. At the time, AFI was considered one of the top four film schools in the country with UCLA, USC and NYU. Of course, AFI’s school was specifically focused on the art of filmmaking and was not attached to any other school or university. Its other main focus was the promotion and preservation of the film and video arts throughout its history in America. I decided to sign up as a member and began receiving its monthly magazine. Since then, up to about a year ago, I set aside money in my budget to renew my membership every year in December, faithfully checking the box to waive all benefits so that my annual contribution would fully go to AFI’s mission. AFI would receive my check and send me a membership card with the following year’s December expiration date, making me a 30-plus year member.

Last year, I received an early generic renewal form, asking me to consider renewing early in order to help AFI reach a goal. I felt I could handle this, so I sent my check to AFI in October. Imagine my surprise when I received my annual membership card with an expiration date of October of this year. I was befuddled by this, but felt it wasn’t anything serious to make a fuss about. Then, in July, I received a generic form letting me know it was time for me to renew my membership for this year. Now, I was concerned. Was AFI trying to change the definition of annual as a period of 8 months? Was this cycle of early renewals just an underhanded method of trying to pull in more money from inattentive donors? I could not let this pass, so I wrote a letter to the membership department regarding my concerns, adding a scanned image of my membership cards for the past three years to demonstrate the shortened “annual membership” I had already received this year. A few days later, I received a message on my answering machine from a membership manager, giving me a simple apology. She stated that I was a longtime valued member and the early expiration date was obviously a human entry error. Then, in a very laissez-faire manner, she added she understood why I would decide not to renew and she would put a note in my file providing an explanation. If I had any questions, she provided a number I could call. Even though my letter was harsh, I could not understand why she had called if she was going to be accepting of the situation, instead of trying to demonstrate how the error would be corrected in order to convince me to stay with AFI.

A few weeks ago, I received a new standard renewal notice, which was more in line with the October expiration date. Since I had such a long relationship with AFI, I thought about not letting a minor error or the singular reaction from one staff member distract me from the primary reason I had been supporting AFI every year. I seriously considered sending my renewal check to AFI in October. Then, I received another renewal notice informing me that since I was such a loyal member and partner all these years, my membership expiration date was being extended to November. I shook my head in amazement. Was AFI so generously giving me back one of the two months that had been taken from me in error last year? Did not the message from that membership manager state that a notification about the error was being put into my account, so that the membership drive would not ironically boast to me about giving me back half what they had taken from me in my current annual membership? I realize that these notices were all computer-driven outreach programs, but considering the earlier personal message I had received and the resulting lack of follow-through, I saw an indication that AFI had lost the human empathic oversight to forward their mission to preserve American film history and help educate film storytellers into the future. It’s time for me to search elsewhere to further that cause.