It's hard to call it junk mail. The cause is worthy, the need is genuine. Still, I get so many of these pleas for help. Sometimes I wonder: ''Isn't there a better way to give?''
There is: the Internet. And nonprofits are beginning to discover it. Charity may never be the same again.
The problem with today's mailed appeals is that they're not efficient. Printing and mailing material costs money, and the results are hit-and-miss. That helps explain why the average charity spends 25 cents of every dollar it gets on its own operations.
On-line, the tables are turned. Instead of charities going to donors, donors go to the charity. Jim Clark, president of an information-technology firm for nonprofit groups, has a vision for this: ''I'd like to think that this Christmas season, families will sit around the computer ... and decide which organizations to give to.''
The trick is to connect to the World Wide Web (the graphical way to look at the Internet) and search for your special cause. You can search the Web yourself using Infoseek. (Point your Web software, called a browser, to http://www2.infoseek.com and type in key words). Or use Mr. Clark's company, access.point, which lists various organizations lending a hand in hundreds of ways. The service is available on America Online - go to access.point - and is scheduled to show up on the Internet's World Wide Web in a couple of weeks.
Not sure which hot spot should get your help? Click on ''current crises'' in access.point. The service will point to hurricane relief and Bosnian refugees , listing references to hundreds of groups.
Non-profit groups aren't always looking for money; they also need volunteers. The Internet makes it easy to rally supporters of a particular cause.
When France said in June it would go ahead with nuclear testing, Internet activists began a boycott of French wines. They also got so many people to send electronic mail to French President Jacques Chirac that French officials finally had to shut down the account.
The John and Mary R. Markle Foundation plans to cosponsor a budget game on the Web. Players will debate issues and make their own cuts in government spending. Each week, the foundation will inform the White House and Congress what cuts citizens are making.
Allegheny College in Meadville, Pa. has been on the Web less than two months, but it's already considering matching up alumni in specific professions with like-minded students. Students already visit alumni at work, but an on-line conference would make the logistics simpler. And by attracting alumni on the Internet, the college can nudge them to be more active. ''We call it friend-raising,'' says Allegheny spokesman Ed Blaguszewski.
Nonprofits can give too. When an Ohioan asked EnviroLink Network recently how to stop plans to open national forest land to oil-drilling, the Internet query drew more than 1,000 responses from around the world. Environmentalists visited the offices of companies planning to bid for drilling rights and staged a protest on the day of the bidding.
''The Internet ... is really going to help revolutionize the way nonprofit organizations interact with society,'' says Josh Knauer, executive director of EnviroLink (http://www.envirolink.org).
Be careful which nonprofit you choose, advises the National Charities Information Bureau. The watchdog group publishes a quarterly ''Wise Giving Guide.'' Next month, it will be available on the Web (http://www.give.org).
* Send comments via Internet (email@example.com) or to CompuServe (70541,3654) or America Online (LBELSIE).