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God Squad: When charities send unwanted 'gifts'

Along with many other people, I've sent contributions to favorite charities through the mail. Unfortunately, this has landed me on a lot of mailing lists, and I now receive far too many pleas for money from benevolent organizations and institutions. My main objection is to requests that include "gifts," some fairly costly. What is my obligation here? Obviously, I can't send money to all the groups that solicit me, but I feel guilty about the gifts, either discarding them, or even using some items. The post office won't return this type of mail to the sender. I'm sure other people are in the same position and would appreciate your addressing our dilemma.

-- C., Long Island, via email

I've been telling people for years that giving away money is easier than making money -- but not that much easier. Your letter offers one example of how sometimes goodness is its own punishment.

The first thing all givers should do is check out the charities they're considering for donations. Internet sites like, (, and guidestar .org provide reviews of the governance and overhead costs for many charities.

In general, a charity should consume less than 30 percent of donations for administrative costs. A charity should also have a firm policy of not sharing or selling your name to other charities.

If you still find yourself inundated with unwanted appeals, don't feel guilty throwing out the appeals and so-called gifts, sent only so you'll feel guilty and pay for the gift you didn't ask for in the first place. I would not use such gifts.

If a gift is a holy object, you should not, of course, toss it in the trash but dispose of it respectfully in a manner appropriate to your faith and its customs. Under Jewish law, anything with God's name on it must be buried in a cemetery.

My general rule is to seek out the charities to which I donate; I don't wait for them to find me.

I read your column with interest every Saturday, and I'm curious about something. You always refer to the years before zero as "BCE." And you refer to years after zero as "CE," rather than "AD." Why are these terms used? Are people so afraid to use "BC" for "Before Christ"? I'm Roman Catholic and am offended by the designation "BCE."

-- J., Dunnellon, Fla., via email

Thank you for your sensitive question about how we label years. I'm not sympathetic to all forms of political correctness. I'm a committed "Merry Christmas" or "Happy Hanukkah" guy, and definitely not a "Happy Holidays" guy. (If you don't know which one applies, why not just ask the person you are greeting?) However, I try to always keep an open mind about the ways our language conveys not only intended meanings but also unintended prejudice.

I'm happy for the change in the old custom of always calling a man (married or unmarried) Mister (Mr.), while a woman was called Miss or Mrs. The term "Ms." solved that problem and creates a welcome linguistic equality. The problem with the labels for years is that Christ is not a name. Christ is a title (like general or president). Christ means Messiah.

If the years before zero were labeled as BJ (Before Jesus) and the years after zero as AJ (After Jesus) I would have no problem at all. However, forcing me to acknowledge Jesus as the Christ is not about labeling years, but about declaring a central Christian belief to be true.

Similarly, AD comes from the Latin, Anno Domini, meaning, "In the Year of Our Lord." In fact, the full phrase is Anno Domini Nostra Jesu Christi ("In the Year of Our Lord Jesus Christ"). I'm sure you can understand why I have a problem making such a theological affirmation. BCE (Before the Common Era) and CE (Common Era) is merely a theologically neutral way to label the years.

Let me say, however, that I do understand your discomfort. Why should my beliefs deprive you of your beliefs? So I have a suggestion for you: Please continue to use BC/AD in your labeling of the years of human history, and I'll continue to use BCE/CE in mine.

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