The Fundraising Campaign that’s Still Working–40 Years Later

Nick Fewings Photos on Unsplash

Anyone who’s donated to a food bank or a skid row mission has gotten one of these letters in the mail . . .

The outer envelope has a teaser: “Feed a hungry person for $1.92”—or something similar. The letter inside explains that it only takes a small donation to make a real difference in the life of a hungry person—so why not donate today?

The cost per meal, whether it’s $1.92, $1.57, or some other number, is always strikingly low. Who could imagine providing a full, hot meal for less than two bucks?

After receiving a few letters like this, a curious person might wonder, why are so many rescue missions using this same pitch?

The easy answer: because it works. And for years, it’s been hard to beat.

Next question: Where did it come from?

That’s a story in itself . . .

It was nearly 40 years ago that my friend Gifford Claiborne was helping to raise funds for the Los Angeles Mission. Every Thanksgiving, the mission would host a big meal for the street people of L.A. (as it does to this day). To promote the event, the mission would run a small ad in the L.A. Times, typically with a big cross and the headline, “Jesus Saves.”

This time, Gifford decided to change the headline to “Please Help Us” and below that, “For $1.12 you can feed a hungry person at Thanksgiving.”  

Here, in his own words, is how he came up with the idea:

Well, I did an analysis. I said, “Give me your budget.” They gave me the budget. And I said, “We have to divide this budget by the number of meals we serve each day.” So, we multiplied the number [of meals served] each day and got the number for the month and the number for the year, so we knew. And then we divided that into what our costs were for feeding them. And it came out to $1.12.

The ad cost $80. They tracked the results and, lo and behold, it brought in $120.

Even more importantly, the mission gained eight new donors, who could be cultivated for years thereafter.

New donor acquisition—plus a net revenue gain! That was enough to warrant a repeat. Over the next few years, the mission under Gifford’s direction bought more, larger ads using the same strategy. Then they applied the same offer to direct mail campaigns, which were even more successful. Gifford then brought his talents to the Russ Reid agency, where he launched similar successful campaigns for many other rescue missions and Christian nonprofits.

When something works, people tend to emulate it. So, rescue missions around the country began using the same offer, often with the help of newly-spawned direct mail agencies that recognized its phenomenal success. Of course, the cost per meal has changed over the years and varies from mission to mission. But the basic idea has remained amazingly constant.

Today, that simple offer raises more than a billion dollars a year for rescue missions while attracting multiplied thousands of new donors. It works because it presents a clear proposition: Here’s something simple you can do that will meet a real, urgent need. And here’s the impact your donation will have—in precise numbers.  

The idea’s enduring success provides some good lessons for those of us working to raise funds for nonprofits today:

  1. Don’t reinvent the wheel.
  2. Keep the message simple.
  3. Make the offer irresistible.
  4. Show the donor exactly how her gift will make a difference.
Gifford Claiborne

Gifford Claiborne went on to launch successful fundraising campaigns for various organizations and continues to do so today.  He changed the way nonprofits—especially urban rescue missions—raise money. Today, countless smart, young agency professionals around the country are applying the methods he pioneered 40 years ago.

And most of them have no idea who he is.

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