Probably the best fundraising letter in the world…
A fundraising letter written in 1925 by the famous author, magazine editor and advertising agency founder Bruce Barton that elicited a 100% response rate has many lessons for those wanting to communicate effectively with donors today, says Ken Burnett, managing trustee of the Showcase of Fundraising Innovation and Inspiration (SOFII).
The letter is an appeal by Barton to 24 of his business associates to join him in donating $1,000 to buy a college education at a Kentucky mountain college for 10 local girls and boys – 250 in total.
Burnett says, “The letter is a brilliant example of what is often neglected in direct mail appeals today. It addresses perfectly the four key aspects of direct appeals; audience, offer, format as well as the creative, which is often the main focus of today’s appeals and in response terms generally the least important.”
The letter is a product of its time, when social norms made certain forms of language more acceptable. "While extolling the lessons we can learn from Bruce Barton’s classic copywriting it should be pointed out that this fine letter is flawed in some ways too. Though Barton was, we understand, a lifelong moderate Republican, viewed by today’s standards at least, some of his references might be considered racist or sexist. Attitudes obviously were different back then, though we’re not sure that this allowance excuses the comment in page 3, paragraph 2 of the letter, which even then many might have found offensive," says Burnett .
‘It seems not to have depressed response all the same, so who can say?," he adds. "Barton clearly knows his audience – all male - and the content of the letter is tailored to appeal to them, with lines describing the girls he wants to help ‘as good looking as any in the world’ and the group being of fine American heritage described vividly as ‘clean sound timber, with no knots, no wormholes," says Burnett.
“The offer is powerful and distinct, promising donors the ‘best time you ever bought for $1000’. And having built readers’ interest to a crescendo the end paragraph allows no element of doubt that they will want to donate, with Barton posing the question in the last line: ‘What will you have, ten boys or ten girls?”
Commentating on the format Burnett says, “This is a highly personal letter and bearing in mind Barton was, by this time, a famous man it would have carried enormous weight and influence. He cleverly includes a reply envelope, addressing one of the major barriers that may stand in the way of the reader contributing to the cause – ease of response.
“The creative is absolutely wonderful. The tone and style is easy and conversational and has not dated; it includes some fantastic story-telling and you can almost see the reader nodding in agreement with Barton,” says Burnett.
“This letter is a classic and is an absolute jewel of donor/fundraiser communication that offers many lessons for today,” he adds.
The full text of the letter can be found here.
Among other gems on the site is what could be the world’s first fundraising letter, written by a 13th century Bhuddist monk Eihei Dogen, one of the greatest religious figures and creative thinkers in Japanese history, appealing for funds to build a training centre.
The site is run by the SOFII foundation, a registered charity which has had support from Joel Joffe, the former chair of the Giving Campaign. to provide a free archive of the best fundraising appeals to fundraisers.