Is your direct mail misleading and unethical?

Here’s the outer envelope for a piece of political fundraising:

Cruzoe

And here’s an article about this piece at Newsweek: Ted Cruz campaign is mailing donation requests disguised as legal summonses.

It surfaced because a Twitter user tweeted the image with the following tweet:

Received this for my 88-year-old grandma. Says it’s a summons from Travis County, but is actually asking for money for Ted Cruz. Did your campaign authorize this? Is this even legal? Shame on you.

It turns out this is completely legal, as long as it somewhere makes clear its real purpose and who’s talking. Which this piece does. Its purpose and sender are evident even from the outer envelope alone — if you pay close attention and know what you’re looking for.

But really, fundraisers, do you want you defense for something you’ve done to be It’s not illegal?

One expert is quoted in the Newsweek article saying, “These are self-healing. If people don’t like it, they don’t give. It’s the most normal thing in politics. It’s the attention-getter.”

I’ll bet that’s true. But it doesn’t pass the sniff test for me.

A fundraising piece identifying itself as a SUMMONS coming from the local county just isn’t normal use of language. It deceives, if only for a moment. When you use deception, you aren’t a fundraiser … you’re more like a con artist. If you respect donors, you don’t try to trick them into giving.

When deceptive fundraising like this is discussed, two scenarios often come up that I think mislead and confuse us:

  1. An elderly donor who’s struggling with dementia might see it, misunderstand it, and do something self-destructive as a result. That’s compelling and heartbreaking, but it’s not a reason not to do something. You might as well say cities shouldn’t have public transit because someone with dementia might get on the bus and get lost. The fact that it’s deceptive is enough reason not to do it!
  2. The deception might “work,” but it will hurt you later on by making donors angry with you for using the tactic. I’ve never seen evidence that something can work short term but be harmful long-term. (And I’ve looked for it!) The deception is unethical. That’s the full reason you shouldn’t do it.

These scenarios are not meaningful reasons for making decisions. Ethical behavior is sufficient reason you need to think it through.

There’s a similar teaser that shows up now and then in normal fundraising: FINAL NOTICE. It also works — quite well, I’m told. It may not be as aggressively deceptive as SUMMONS, but it’s on similarly thin ice, ethically. It also looks like something it’s not. In my opinion, it is also a trick, not donor-loving fundraising.

What about ANNUAL FUND? It’s another common teaser that works — and I can vouch for that from personal experience. It’s sometimes lumped with FINAL NOTICE as being inappropriate and anti-donor.

I disagree. ANNUAL FUND is in no way deceptive. It’s odd, and I don’t understand why donors respond to it, but it’s not a trick.

Direct mail fundraising is hard. Maybe the hardest part is getting people to open your envelope. It might be tempting to resort to trickery. Here’s my set of principles to help navigate the honesty of direct mail:

  1. The fact that you don’t like something doesn’t make it unethical!
  2. Deception is unethical. Even tiny, white, slightly misleading hints are unethical. You should never, ever do that.
  3. If it seems ambiguous, imagine having to explain something you’ve done to your mother. Does it hold water with her?


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The future of fundraising is not about social media, online video, or SEM. It’s not about any technology, medium, or technique. It’s about donors. If you need to raise funds from donors, you need to study them, respect them, and build everything you do around them. And the future? It’s already here. More.

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Jeff BrooksJeff Brooks has been serving the nonprofit community for more than 35 years and blogging about it since 2005. He considers fundraising the most noble of pursuits and hopes you’ll join him in that opinion. You can reach him at jeff [at] jeff-brooks [dot] com. More.


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The future of fundraising is not about social media, online video, or SEM. It’s not about any technology, medium, or technique. It’s about donors. If you need to raise funds from donors, you need to study them, respect them, and build everything you do around them. And the future? It’s already here. More.

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Jeff Brooks has been serving the nonprofit community for more than 30 years and blogging about it since 2005. He considers fundraising the most noble of pursuits and hopes you’ll join him in that opinion. You can reach him at jeff [at] jeff-brooks [dot] com.

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