Cover Story

But it's for a good cause...

"But it's for a good cause..." Continued...

Issue: "Urban mission fundraising," Sept. 27, 1997

Here's how the syndicated approach works: First, a company like Russ Reid creates a stock letter. The letter is printed on each mission's letterhead and bears the computer-stamped signature of the director. Minor tweaking is done to tailor the letter to the missions, such as adjusting the grocery list in the "fill-the-pantry" campaign, but the same anecdotes are used. Seven missions approved of the use of such letters. Thirteen said they would not use them.

Russ Reid, who went into fundraising more than 30 years ago, defends use of stock stories because it is cost-efficient for his clients. "From a cost standpoint, if we had to write individual stories for every mission, it would raise the cost to make it prohibitive," Mr. Reid says. "We do it honestly." When a mission wants a letter specific to itself, the Reid company will produce it for an extra $1,500.

The Washington mission's Edward Eyring agrees that the approach is acceptable. "The stories are examples. It takes time and effort, as well as money [to customize] ... ," he says. "I'm really not concerned with the method we're doing now. Those people come and go. There's no possible way if you wrote a story about ... particular persons for it to be completely accurate. You have to take people's word. One story is just about as likely to be accurate as another story."

Even if readers knew the same stories were being told about the same people in all the cities where he mails letters, contributions would not be adversely affected, Mr. Reid says. "I don't think they give diddly-twit.... It's irrelevant, any more than donors to the American Red Cross would care that the same letter that goes out in Syracuse goes out in Tucumseh." The letters aren't always exactly the same, he says, but the anecdotes generally are.

Randy Brewer of the Hemmings, Birkholm, Grizzard agency in Los Angeles, who spent seven years with Russ Reid, does not mind that the same stories go to different missions, as long as they are true and are typical of the homeless. HBG also allows personalization of the stories, for a flat fee of $150; a mission wanting to personalize completely the letter and use different photographs pays an extra $450.

Barry Durman, president of the Atlantic City (N.J.) Mission, and a member of the ECFA standards committee, thinks readers do believe the stories are taken from the mission that sends the letter. "The big integrity question is, when you say, 'Johnny came through the front door with these problems... ,' is that really a true, real person, or are you going in on a cookie-cutter approach where you're saying, 'Men like Johnny come in every day'? I have a problem with that." Nor does Mr. Durman believe that small-print disclaimers are sufficient. "Most of the readers of these letters are older people. They cannot read small type, and their heart is going to get caught up in the emotion of the letter. They're not going to read official-looking disclaimers. I think the intent of the letters needs to be clear.... Otherwise, you're becoming manipulative." '

Richard Shannon, who brought the Washington situation to the attention

of the ECFA, believes that if a letter says a "guy like Steve" came to the mission, then Steve should have been there. "We have plenty of stories without making them up," he notes. (Four times during 1995 and 1996, WORLD profiled actual Gospel Mission clients, based on interviews conducted at the mission itself, and used the clients' real names.) Mr. Durman says he has no trouble finding clients willing to be interviewed and to have their name printed with their story in a fundraising letter.

Mr. Shannon, who was director of the mission's School of Tomorrow, which trains formerly homeless individuals to move into good jobs, felt so strongly about the fundraising matter that he resigned his position when he felt the mission didn't change its tactics. "It goes beyond whether this is legal," he says. "It's a phenomenal and profound moral issue."

The concerns that Mr. Shannon raised are nothing new, says Mr. Nelson of ECFA. Even before ECFA received the Shannon complaint, the agency had sent out an advisory to all its members stressing that organizations should use contributions for the purpose for which they were solicited, and that "communications must be truthful, current, complete, accurate and not misleading."

Bottom line, Mr. Nelson says, is that for ECFA to have any value, it must be vigilant: "We are not adversarial to our members. We're not going to play 'gotcha.' We are all believers. It's peer regulation. We're trying to say, 'Here are our standards. Truth is truth.'"

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