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

December 21, 1997|By Scott Shane | Scott Shane,SUN STAFF

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.

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