Direct mail aims at heart of reader Consultants, writers behind charities tug at generosity, guilt


Amid the landslide of catalogs and Christmas cards in the December mail, an envelope catches your eye: a guardian angel in purple ink spreading her considerable wings over two purple children. The inscription says, "There's an angel inside just for you!"

You're skeptical. You're curious. You open it.

You take the brass-colored angel pin from the letter inside and read about Kevin, the toddler severely burned by a space heater in his dilapidated home on a Northern Cheyenne reservation.

And, maybe, moved by the holiday spirit and a little copywriting magic, you check the box marked "Yes! I want to help a needy Native American child like Kevin!" and proceed to write a check to the St. Labre Indian School.

You have paid unconscious tribute to the masters of direct mail, the sophisticated industry that conjures contributions for worthy causes from a distracted public. This fund-raising "package" for a rural Montana charity, for instance, was designed by a consultant in New Jersey, printed and mailed by a contractor in Texas to names provided by a Baltimore mailing-list broker.

Professional letter writers are paid an average of about $2,000, and as much as $10,000, to craft an appeal of perhaps 600 words, a fee that reflects how much they know about us. They know that most of us read the "P.S." first; that we like to receive something before we'll give anything; that we are loath to throw away a reply envelope with a first-class stamp; that, generally speaking, women give while men concoct excuses.

Last year, Americans gave $150.7 billion to charity, nearly 80 percent of it in donations from individuals, according to the American Association of Fund-Raising Counsel in New York, a trade association. Much of that mountain of money was built from checks of $10 or $50 sent in response to direct-mail appeals.

"I have a philosophy about Americans, that they're uniquely generous in the history of the world," says Jerry Huntsinger, 64, of Richmond, Va., a fund-raising consultant since 1962 and an elder statesman of the industry. "The United States is the only country where direct-mail fund-raising works on such a scale."

The reason is millions of people like Catherine Fornataro, an 85-year-old widow who lives at the Charlestown retirement community in Catonsville and whose mail is flush with causes.

"You're really swamped at this time of year," she says. "I have my special ones that I donate to -- heart association, lung association, diabetic association, disabled vets, St. Jude. The others, I know they're all good causes, but I just throw 'em out."

Hard to discard

The journeymen who design all those appeals to make it harder for people to throw them out seem a little defensive about their craft. There is, after all, a sleight-of-hand aspect to the letters, with their obviously faked handwriting and signatures of people other than the authors -- Huntsinger says he has "written stuff signed by Ronald Reagan, Jimmy Carter, all kinds of movie stars."

The occasional, well-publicized scam artist has created a "rotten image" for fund-raisers, Huntsinger says, and stricter accounting and privacy standards are needed.

But he argues that some of the criticism reflects the psychology of the cheapskate.

"People feel guilty because they don't donate," he says. "If you can say to yourself, 'These people are a bunch of crooks,' you can justify it."

Conrad Squires, 61, a Massachusetts craftsman who writes an average of one money-raising letter a day, says those who

donate often are reluctant to inquire too deeply into the causes they support, perhaps for fear they'll find they were duped. That reflects the truth letter-writers most need to keep in mind, he says: that people give out of their own emotional needs.

A letter he was particularly proud of writing a few years ago, Squires says, began, "Dear Mr. So-and-so, Are you a kind person?" "The biggest point is you're writing about the donor, not the organization. The last thing I should say is, 'We're a good organization and we've been around for 20 years.' "

He adds: "If people didn't need for their own sakes to give to good causes, direct-mail fund-raising would go down in flames."

The need to give

St. Labre Indian School would not exist if plenty of people didn't feel the need to give. The school's "B.A.P. package" -- the name staff members use for the "brass angel pin" letter -- will go to more than 4 million Americans in the year ending June 30, according to Karen Kansala, director of development.

From its isolated campus in the wilds of southeastern Montana, the charity operates three schools and an array of social programs for the Northern Cheyenne and Crow tribes. About half of the $22 million annual budget must be raised by mail, Kansala says. That's the daunting sum of $30,000 a day, 365 days a year.

To keep that river of cash flowing in, Kansala says, St. Labre must maintain a list of 400,000 active donors. On average, one-fourth of the list drops out each year and must be replaced with new names.

That's the role of the angel letter. It is, in the industry lingo, a "prospecting" letter aimed at people who have never given. Thus the hard sell: the splashy angel on the "carrier," or outer envelope; the angel pin, a "guilt gift," to create a feeling of obligation; the modest "ask," or suggested donation, beginning at $8; the story of Kevin to draw the newcomer in.

"We have to grab your attention," Kansala says.

At about 40 cents a letter, this is a relatively costly mailing. It was designed by a fund-raising professional, Randolph Jordan of Elmer, N.J., who visited St. Labre in summer 1996 before crafting the pitch.

"Angels have been big -- several best-selling books, the TV show 'Touched by an Angel,' " says Jordan, 41, who has 15 years in the business. "The first angel package I did was three or four years ago. But I think angels are beginning to go now."

His hardest job, he says, is to get folks at a charity "to see the drama in what they're doing," Jordan says. "They want to tell you, 'We served X number of clients.' I say, 'Wait a minute. You're saving lives.' "

List of names

St. Labre got its millions of prospecting names through Baltimore mailing-list broker Mary Elizabeth Granger & Associates, sometimes renting a list for one-time use at an average cost of about 8 cents a name, more often swapping lists with other not-for-profits. In arranging an exchange, says Granger, who visits St. Labre twice a year, she tries to make certain both lists have equal "name quality" -- only donors who gave more than $10 in the past 12 months, for example.

To print, stuff and mail the materials -- a pricey process, because the pin requires hand-stuffing and precludes cheap automated postal rates -- St. Labre hired Focus Direct, a San Antonio direct-mail company.

The angel package is garnering donations from 2.5 percent of recipients, a reasonable payoff for a prospecting campaign, Kansala says. The average donation is $10.50, which will produce a little more than $1 million in gross revenue from 4 million pieces mailed.

High costs

But because the costs will total about $1.6 million, St. Labre will lose money on its prospecting. The payoff will come only in the coming years, as first-time donors are treated to "Welcome to the St. Labre Family" letters and become loyal, generous backers.

Without a local, urban base of Montana supporters -- Billings is 130 miles to the west -- and with a big budget to employ Native Americans, St. Labre has relatively high fund-raising costs -- 35 percent of revenue, Kansala says; St. Labre's financial statements indicate the actual percentage is well over 40 percent.

Such high fund-raising costs are frowned on by the three private groups that rate charities, the National Charity Information Bureau, the Philanthropic Advisory Service of the Council of Better Business Bureaus, and the American Institute of Philanthropy. None of the three services lists St. Labre as complying with its standards, chiefly because of a failure to file full financial statements.

"It's really 'donor beware' with an organization like this," says Daniel Borochoff, president of the American Institute of Philanthropy.

Kansala, 50, who did fund-raising for St. Labre for 20 years, worked elsewhere for 13 years and returned last May, acknowledges that costs are high. But she says it's tough for a little-known organization to keep costs as low as national name-brand charities such as the American Red Cross or the Salvation Army.

Kansala grumbles, "If you do anything creative, you're in the 40 [percent] to 50 percent range." She considers the angel package a fairly bland approach, what she calls "the Gladys-out-in-Iowa look." She says she wants to try new letters with geometric designs associated with Native American art.

Generosity of women

Yet by all accounts it is Gladys, figuratively, who foots the bill for American charity.

"Women give 90 percent of the money -- the older the better," Huntsinger says. "Stereotypes are very dangerous. But the truth is, when I sit here at my word processor, I stereotype like crazy. If I had my druthers, I'd write to a woman 65 years old, two grandkids, lives in a $200,000 house, has two cars. And if it's for the Nature Conservancy, I'd like her to subscribe to National Geographic."

The growing population of what marketers call "third agers" -- the first two ages being youth and parenthood -- or OPALs, for Older Person with Active Lifestyle, is turning around direct-mail fund raising after a slump through the late 1980s and early '90s. Older folks have time to open mail and have income to share.

Mailing lists, of course, can be shaped with many criteria beyond demographics, to include interests in the environment, opposition to abortion or political leanings. When Los Angeles police Sgt. Stacey C. Koon went to prison for his role in the beating of Rodney King, a Virginia political fund-raising firm, Bruce W. Eberle & Associates, sent millions of letters to conservative lists asking for donations for Koon's legal fees and living expenses for Koon's wife, Mary, "a fine, Christian lady" and their five children.

The letter raised more than $5 million and netted considerably more than $1 million after expenses were paid, according to the direct marketing trade publication DM News. "We submitted it for an award, but I think it was a little too politically sensitive," says Declan Bransfield, the firm's president.

But it's always a struggle to win the hearts and checkbooks of millions. Up to 90 percent of unsolicited mail is thrown away unopened, fund-raisers say. A German expert who conducted eye-motion studies of the minority who opened an appeal letter spent just 20 seconds from the moment they picked it up until they decided what to do.

Tinkering with letters

In the unceasing struggle to boost revenue, fund-raisers tinker HTC with letters constantly. They underline key passages or simulate handwriting, go to four pages or cut back to two. They mail in a plain business envelope, betting that recipients won't be able to resist finding out what's inside.

They switch the order of the "ask," changing "$10-$15-$25-$100" to "$15-$10-$25-$100," or try exact figures such as $21, $33, $47, $115, linking them to specific items the charity can buy for such sums.

"Sometimes, believe it or not, asking for a little more money can actually increase the number of donors," says Mal Warwick, a California fund-raising consultant and author of "How to Write Successful Fundraising Letters." "This is a counter-intuitive business."

Because many fence-sitters put charity mail aside, where it lies forgotten, many letter-writers try to create a sense of urgency about the donation, citing a purported deadline or an emergency need. To convey timeliness, some writers date the letter "Thursday morning," though months often elapse between a letter's signature and its delivery.

"I've known organizations that mail twice a month, and every time, it's an emergency," Huntsinger says.

Charities mail heavily at year's end to take advantage of the tax-deduction appeal, holiday feeling and the psychological deadline of Dec. 31. But don't look for the mail to cease in the New Year: Some fund-raisers like January and February, figuring people are indoors reading mail more in colder weather.

There is an occupational economic hazard of sorts for a fund-raising writer who is very good at motivating others to give. He can end up motivating himself.

"A number of times I wrote the letter and said, 'Hey, this really is a good program,' and wrote a check myself," says Squires, the prolific Massachusetts consultant. "For a guy with as many clients as I have, that can be dangerous to your budget."

Pub Date: 12/21/97

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