The worst among them include penny coins, small umbrellas that fall apart when you put them up and ball-point pens made of cardboard that either bend in your hand or stop writing after a few words. The better and more useful ones include such things as lapel badges and address labels.
But now a group of seven direct marketing agencies, invited recently by the Institute of Fundraising to contribute their views on revising its code of practice on direct mail, has come up with two main conclusions (Third Sector Online, 9 November). Perhaps the least challenging of these is that charities should use more environmentally friendly paper and beware of making unjustifiable statements about how green they are. Most will agree with that.
But the more challenging conclusion the marketers have come up with is that there should be greater restrictions on incentives. They suggest that charities should have to say how much the incentives cost and be able to justify them by relevance to their cause. It's suggested, for example, that charities say the pen costs 2p and is enclosed because supporters sometimes like to write to beneficiaries.
This is like a red rag to a bull and is sure to increase the tension on the subject between direct marketing agencies and charities, especially the large ones. Incentives work, say the charities. We have the figures to prove it, and the extra money raised for our causes far outweighs the cost of the incentives. Those who object to them are just being snobbish, and it's insulting to imply that supporters who respond to incentives are being manipulated. Of course the agencies talk down incentives, the charities say - they want us to buy their wonderful (and expensive) creative ideas instead.
This tension is not going to be sorted out overnight. Fundraisers see it as their duty to use what works best, while those who take a wider view want to move towards ways of working that are smarter and greener. Direct mail is intrinsically carbon-prolific, like all activities (including magazine publishing) that involve paper, printing, transport and waste disposal. Surely the long-term aim must be to reduce direct mail, but it's a goal that can be achieved only in stages.
The institute is now inviting its members to comment on the group's suggestions before the end of this month. Then it will move ahead to revisions of its direct marketing code of practice. A backlash from charities might yet make it difficult for the institute, a member-led organisation, to adopt all the suggestions of the direct marketing group at this stage. But part of the role of the institute is to take a wider view, and surely it's in a good position to ask fundraisers, at the very least, to tighten up on the more rubbishy forms of incentives and give greater thought to the damage that is done to the general charity brand among that section of the public which finds incentives annoying and wasteful.
The institute would be unwise to force the pace beyond that at which its members are capable of moving; but it should balance that against its role of promoting good practice and providing principled leadership.