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The Charity Fundraiser as a Protection Racket

I’m a cause marketer, not a direct response marketer. So I’m sure there’s all kinds of nuance that’s not plain to me in this recent direct mail piece from Smile Train, Inc.

But holy crap have you ever seen something that seemed more like a charity version of the protection racket?
“Make one gift now (of no less than $250. See the inset below for details) and we’ll never ask for another donation again.”
If you’ve ever watched a movie or TV show about the mob you know what I mean when I say protection racket. A burly guy goes to all the neighborhood businesses and tells the owners something like this:
“There’s been a lot of violence in the neighborhood lately. Mr. Big hates to see that so he’s offering protection to certain businesses like yours.”
The burly guy doesn’t even have to make an explicit threat. It’s implicitly understood that it is Mr. Big’s men who are doing the violence to the neighborhood businesses that don’t pay up.

In this case Smile Train, Inc., a $92 million in revenue charity whose highest paid executive, Brian Mullaney, made $678,058 in 2008, is Mr. Big. The burly guy is that pitiable child on the cover of the card.

Pay up, the picture says, and you’ll never have to see the before-picture of that child’s face again.

The only thing I can figure about the offer is that Smile Train knows exactly what the typical lifetime value of a donor acquired via direct mail is. They also know the average cost of acquiring each new donor. My guess is that Smile Train’s average lifetime value of a donor is right around $250, minus the cost of acquiring the donor.

The offer, then, just reflects Smile Train’s fundraising reality.

Like I said, I don’t know much about direct response, but I do know that one of the hallmarks of that business is that that they’re always testing new ‘packages;’ different copy and headlines, different pictures, different offers, even different envelopes.

Here’s hoping this ridiculous package doesn’t test well.


Jeff Brooks said…
I've got some bad news: Smile Train has been mailing packages with this approach at least since early 2009. I'm guessing it's their control. I agree, it's a very strange approach. It's not clear to me why it works, but it looks like it does.

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