What you should know before you give

From ANIMAL PEOPLE, December 1995:

Walt Disney explained fundraising succinctly in his animated edition of Robin
Hood––an account of “What really happened in Sherwood Forest,” as narrated by
Chaunticleer the Cock, voice and music by Roger Miller, which seems as historically accurate
as any.
As local representative of the first nonprofit institution, the Church, badger-of-thecloth
Friar Tuck worked to relieve the misery of the poor, against the oppression of maneless
lion Prince John, the Phony King of England. Friar Tuck depended initially on the donations
his congregation left in the poor box, but as John’s taxation policies increased the numbers of
poor and left the remaining citizens less able to give, Tuck turned to Robin Hood, the fox,
the quintessential fundraiser. Sometimes Robin Hood went out disguised as a poor old soul,
crying “Alms! Alms for the poor!” to the general public. But that was just image-building.
Robin Hood’s real fundraising schtick was collecting funds from the rich. Best known for
“robbing from the rich to give to the poor,” Robin Hood the fox actually used wit and stealth

by preference, using John’s own vanity and
avarice against him.
In the end, Robin Hood was, as
Tuck pronounced him, “A great hero.” His
cause was just, he prevailed, and society was
willing to forgive his transgressions of law,
not to mention common morality, because he
had not robbed at random, had actually rectified
injustice done by others, and had not
personally enriched himself.
Life, however, is more complex in
the late 20th century than it was in 12th century
Sherwood Forest. There are now more
than one million nonprofit organizations in
the United States alone, each with a seemingly
worthy cause, and thousands of would-be
Robin Hoods as well, helping them gain the
wherewithal to do good. In animal protection,
one of the smallest and least lucrative
branches of charity, raising less than 1.1% of
all charitable contributions, there are
nonetheless more than 10,000 organizations
seeking your gifts, ranging from multinational
advocacy groups with corporate-sized budgets
to local cat rescue societies. Any or all
of them may use wit and stealth to sneak up
on your wallet–-and you may give with a
chuckle, appreciating their ability to get your
attention, or you may be bamboozled, giving
without knowing why.
You are more likely to give effectively,
helping those who will most appropriately
use your money, if you know exactly
what moves you to read an appeal, write
a check, and mail it.
Most fundraising attention-getting
devices are essentially neutral: they may be
used for either good or bad. Many such
devices can actually help you quickly and
accurately judge an appeal––if you recognize
them for what they are, understanding
how they work and how they can either be
used fairly or be abused.
Take our own Christmas appeal,
for example, assembled with volunteer
advice from a successful professional
fundraiser––the first time we’ve had this
kind of help.
We need the help, make no mistake
about it. Because ANIMAL PEOPLE
serves a relatively small community, the
subpopulation most concerned about animal
suffering, our appeal to commercial advertisers
––though great for some––is less
broad than it would be for a general-circulation
newspaper or a paper aimed at just pet
owners. Because we are watchdogs, doing
investigative reporting on animal protection
organizations as well as on other animal
issues, our standards for advertisers are also
higher than those of other publications––and
many nonprofit animal protection organizations,
in turn, shy away from our scrutiny.
The same goes for foundations. A very few
help us. Others are leary of exposure, especially
involving other projects that they
Accordingly, we must appeal to
readership for much of the portion of costs
that other publications might cover with ads
or institutional support.
But we’re up against one obstacle
right off: animal protection donors understand
helping animals. You respond to

appeals that put an animal up front, yet
don’t necessarily understand how a newspaper
helps animals, or how we multiply the
impact of your donations by helping route
them to the right places. We have to explain
that to you, when we ask for donations, and
we have to explain it quickly, before you
toss our envelope away.
Accordingly, on the outside of our
envelope this year, we’ve used a teaser,
“He needs your help,” beside our Watchdog
logo of the dog guarding the empty bowl.
You know as well as we do that
the dog who inspired that drawing died
before any of us were born, that the logo is
just a picture, and that A N I M A L
PEOPLE–– though we currently care for 26
former strays out of our own personal pockets––is
not a hands-on rescue organization.
We’re not pretending differently. We’re not
trying to fool you. We’re just trying to get
your attention for the few seconds it takes us
to explain how ANIMAL PEOPLE h e l p s
put food in bowls all over the world.
Most appeals these days use
teasers. They vary a great deal in form.
Some, like ours, are catchy slogans. Others
are windows showing a portion of something
that looks like a check; an envelope format
that looks as if it comes from a government
agency; or the promise of something inside,
such as a prize, a coupon, a survey form, a
contest entry blank, a postcard or petition to
send a politician, or a photograph rousing
your concern.
In general, teasers help you to
make up your mind whether you want to
open the envelope and at least consider making
a donation. They help you decide to support
worthy causes.
A teaser is not a warning signal, no
matter what form it takes. Many of the most
honest organizations “trick” you into opening
an envelope––because they must. But
chances are you’ll rarely feel tricked. An
organization offering you a way to address an
outrage, for instance, is giving you a deal:
you get the chance to send the postcard or
petition, and help influence legislation,
whether or not you donate.
An alarm should go off only if the
postcard or petition is addressed to the sending
organization instead of to the politician or
official who is supposed to get it. Even that
may not mean dishonesty––but it does mean
the sender is more concerned with building
and verifying a mailing list than with making
sure your message reaches whomever.
Other organizations “trick” you
with the chance to win something. This actually
tends to indicate that the organization is
using lists from outside the animal protection
community, trying not to pull funds away
from other animal groups: it is using a
device that may fetch donations from the
general public, not just the usual animal
cause donor. The “trick,” in that case, is
one you probably approve of.
Some of the most abused teasers
seem the most innocent. The late Ann Fields,
who died facing charges of fraudulently raising
millions, liked to cover her appeal
envelopes with stickers and rubber stamped
images of cute animals. Surely someone
doing that truly loved animals and couldn’t
have been up to anything nefarious! Or so
thousands of donors thought.
But just because Ann Fields used
stickers and rubber stamps doesn’t mean your
local rescue group is bogus because it does
the same. The first premise applies:
fundraising devices themselves are essentially
neutral. Let the device get your attention––but
make up your mind about donating
based upon substance.
If, because of a teaser, you open
an appeal from an unfamiliar group or a
group you have reason to be skeptical about,
make a mental note to yourself that you have
been led on by a tactical device, and pay
attention to the use of additional tactical
devices in the appeal itself. No tactical
device or combination of devices mean an
appeal is “good” or “bad,” or that a group is
“good” or “bad.” You’re watching out not
for tactical devices per se, but rather for any
tendency you may have to respond wholly to
devices rather than to the substance of the
appeal and the authenticity of the group.
The Chronicle of Philanthropy and
books on fundraising emphasize over and
over that personal appeals are the most effective.
People who never write checks to charity
still toss coins in the hat of a street corner
musician, hand out treats at Halloween, and
buy Girl Scout cookies.
For that reason, fundraisers knock
themselves out to make mass-produced direct
mail appeals look as personal as possible.
Once again, there’s nothing wrong
with that. Indeed, it’s an essential approach.
Studies have discovered numerous times that
animal protection groups tend to receive the
smallest average donation of any type of
charity, and therefore need to get donations
from the greatest number of people in order
to keep going. As a matter of practicality,
even small rescue groups and local animal
shelters have to get contributions from far
more people than they can contact individually.
That doesn’t mean they don’t want to
contact you personally. Since they can’t,
they settle for second-best: the printed message
that conveys the thought.
Handwritten notes are devastatingly
effective. The word “devastating” is used
advisedly, because handwritten messages
scrawled across photocopied appeals were
Ann Fields’ major fundraising device. Such
messages––and follow-up telephone calls to
major donors––conveyed the impression to
each donor that Fields had so few donors that
she knew every one of them by name, and
was calling on them personally because she
had no one else to turn to.
Doubt that approach. Almost any
animal charity active for any length of time
should have a mailing list of hundreds of
names: it couldn’t function otherwise. And
even if only one household in 10 gives to an
animal charity (the national average is about
three times that high), that’s still more than
100 households in a typical town of 4,000
residents, who on average live four to a
If someone has the time to handwrite
appeals, especially in a purported
emergency situation, he or she has the time
to answer some hard questions, too. Insist
on getting IRS Form 990 filings before deciding
to donate or loan a significant amount.
Then get a second opinion from a third party
as to the legitimacy of the charity.
There are simple ways to doublecheck
the veracity of a handwritten message.
One is to call the organization issuing the
appeal and ask to speak to the person who
wrote the note. If your name is recognized,
you’re still not necessarily assured that the
organization is honest, but you are assured
that the message is not mass produced.
If you get a message signed
“Merritt” or “Kim,” you can bet your
boots––or a big donation––that we will know
who you are. (But just, “Hi, this is Joe,”
won’t necessarily bring recognition, as we
know quite a few Joes. Try, “Hi, this is Joe
Doaks of Paducah, Kentucky.” That gives us
a chance to remember that you previously
called about how to stop cockfighting and
coonhunting, a couple of months ago.)
Incidentally, always compare the
response you get from a charity on other matters
with the response you get when it pertains
to your gift. If you get prompt, courteous,
useful service at all times, that’s a good
indication that the charity cares about what it
does, not just about money.
Johnson boxes
If an appeal isn’t personal, it works
best if it looks personal. Standard devices
that we’ve used this year include a Courier
type face, emulating typewriting, and a
“Johnson box.”
Even if Courier type didn’t look like
typewriting, it would still be a good face for
an appeal, because it is clear, clean, and
easy to read. Courier is a fixed-width variant
of Roman, the same type most often used in
newspapers, books, and magazines. (The
regular ANIMAL PEOPLE face is Times, a
version of Roman originally developed for
use by The New York Times.) Because they
are so often used by respected and reliable
publications, Roman type faces convey an
image of friendly reliability.
The Johnson box is the headline
teaser at the upper right of the first page of
the appeal letter, or sometimes at upper left,
if a photo or logo is at upper right. Direct
mail professionals argue that a Johnson box
boosts donations because it looks like a personal
return address, even though it isn’t an
address at all.
Maybe. But a Johnson box might
also work for the same reason that headlines
and subheads encourage you to read all of
ANIMAL PEOPLE: because your interest
is piqued and piqued again. Like the envelope
teaser, the Johnson box helps tell you if
you’ll be interested in hearing why we’re
worthy of your donation. It may be a “trick,”
but it isn’t much of a trick, because if the
appeal letter itself doesn’t reinforce your
interest––and quickly––it still won’t work.
Mostly, it just says, “Read me.”
The same applies to such devices as
boldface and underlines within an appeal.
Typically, boldfacing and underlining are
used to convey the essentials of an appeal––
or of anything else they may be used
with––at a glance. Read that much and you’ll
get the gist. Then you can go back to pick up
the details. Boldfacing and underlining may
help the fundraiser collect money, but also
help you make up your mind quickly. If your
initial reaction to the boldfacing and underlining
is that you’re being jerked around by
typography, the fundraiser loses: you must
be persuaded that the cause is legitimate,
worthwhile, and in need.
Once again, fundraising devices
should invite skepticism only if you don’t see
the substance behind the claim. Then, ask
questions. Read the whole text. If the group
or cause is unfamiliar, look it up in our
“Who Gets The Money?” section, or call us
for a succinct opinion. Fundraisers try to
convince you to donate in a hurry––because
charities do need to pay the bills; because
the sooner you give, the sooner you can be
asked for more; and most of all, because if
you put off writing a check, you are more
likely to forget about doing it. That’s reasonable,
and necessary, from their perspective.
But don’t be rushed. Make sure any doubts
you have are all answered before you send
money. In the long run, you’ll help animals
more by giving wisely than by giving hastily––especially
if you also give generously.
The basic structure of an appeal is
always the same, no matter who is asking for
money, in whatever cause, and no matter
whether the asking is done effectively or
awkwardly: the fundraiser explains the need
for money, then asks you to give. Successful
appeals emphasize whatever an organization
is doing that others don’t, or don’t do as
well: ANIMAL PEOPLE is the only watchdog
in the animal protection field. Your local
rescue group is the only outfit helping your
neighborhood feral cats.
This is the same approach taken by
commercial advertisers: why should you buy
this product instead of another?
As Winnie-the-Pooh’s pal sings,
“The wonderful thing about Tiggers / is
Tiggers are wonderful things. / Their tops are
made out of rubber. / Their bottoms are made
out of springs. / They’re bouncy, flouncy, /
fun, fun, fun, fun, fun / And the most wonderful
thing about Tiggers is / I’m the only
Save the Tiggers! Send your check
to Pooh Bear, c/o Christopher Robin in the
Hundred Acre Woods.
Make sure you see the evidence. Is
what this charity does really worthwhile and
effective? Is the charity better than similar
groups, or at least as good? If you think so,
why do you think so? What independent verification
do you have of the results?
In the case of ANIMAL PEOPLE,
you hold the results in your hands ten times a
year. If we’re not doing what we claim to be
doing, you’ll quickly know about it: you
won’t get your paper (please complain if you
don’t––we’ll immediately send a replacement),
or the information in it won’t be verifiable.
(Note our specification in every item
as to just who did what, where, when. You
can always check it out. Even in the rare circumstance
that we have to use anonymous
sources to get an investigative scoop, we
know who those sources are, and we have
additional on-the-record, easily verifiable
information to back up the anonymous stuff.)
It is much harder to assess an advocacy
group or an animal shelter, especially a
shelter outside your community. That
doesn’t mean it’s impossible. The best way
to get information is to ask for it. If a group
claims credit for a victory and you have reason
to wonder if it really won that victory, or
even if it was a victory, ask the group itself
for the supporting evidence. It should be able
to supply newspaper clippings, or copies of
legal documents, or the name and telephone
number of a reference.
Of course if you put an organization
to this much trouble, you should expect to
give more than just five or ten dollars after
you are satisifed. But this brings up two
more key points about effective charity:
• You’ll help more animals by giving
generously to a handful of organizations
you know well than by scattershotting small
contributions hither and yon––which mostly
just gets you on a lot more mailing lists.
• The organization that takes the
time and trouble to answer your questions on
one issue is a lot more likely to have the
backup for any claim it makes. If you make
an organization prove itself to earn your first
donation, you can probably assume that it
won’t lie to you later––because it will know
that you are a discriminating donor, who
does ask questions.
You can also ask third parties for
opinions. Ask us. Ask other organizations
that you support. Ask people you know in
the community where the out-of-town animal
shelter is. Ask your political representatives
whether they get much mail attributable to
such-and-such a group, and if so, what they
think of the group. (If you think your local
representives are animal-hating jerks, and
they hate the group, that may be a positive
Reply devices
Along with the appeal letter, every
appeal has a return envelope of some sort,
and a “reply device.” The practical function
of a reply device is to assist the charity with
record-keeping: tracking who gave how
much, and to which appeal or purpose, if
options are offered. ANIMAL PEOPLE
uses the simplest of reply devices, a card
with your address label already affixed and
check-off boxes where most donors will confirm
their gift of a particular amount. Our
reply device has relatively little utility in getting
you to give more. Some fundraising
professionals argue that the check-off boxes
should be used to suggest gifts of a certain
size, but the suggesting has to be low-key,
and can actually harm receipts if the suggested
amounts are higher than donors are otherwise
inclined to give. Feeling compelled to
give either a stipulated amount or nothing,
the donor who feels pushed may well give
nothing, and the charity that loses out will
never know why.
Reply devices are often considerably
more sophisticated, and some do work
to further persuade you to donate generously.
One reply device that particularly annoys
those of us who do serious public opinion
polling is the loaded survey, a favorite of
PETA and the Doris Day Animal League.
The survey gets you to respond––and while
you’re responding, the thinking of the
fundraiser goes, you’ll be more likely to
send along a check, especially since the survey
helps persuade you that the fundraising
organization is in fact doing something
besides asking you for money. Meanwhile,
the inclusion of the survey in the appeal
packet enables the fundraising organization
to claim the mailing is for research purposes,
or educational purposes, and is therefore a
program function, rather than something to
acknowledge as fundraising.
There is an easy way to tell a bogus
survey from one whose purpose is actually to
produce information: do the questions seek
your knowledge, or just your reaction? Do
they make you think about what you believe,
or do they simply stir your emotions? An
authentic information-seeking survey uses
neutrally-worded questions; if you have an
emotional response, the survey-taker may be
inadvertently weighting the findings to produce
a possibly misleading result. A bogus
survey––one with little value to anyone but
the fundraiser––intentionally leads you to a
particular conclusion: send money.
direct mail survey asked 21 questions about
the highly emotionally charged issue of neutering
and releasing feral cats. But the format
was as bland as we could think of a way to
make it: “Are you now feeding any homeless
cats? If yes, how many?” We did not ask,
“Are you now feeding any abandoned, suffering
cats?”, or “Are you ignoring the abandoned,
suffering cats in your neighborhood?”
Contrast our approach with that of a
recent DDAL “National Animal Protection
Opinion Poll”: “Should Congress outlaw
experiments which require animals to be poi
soned in order to test household products?”
“Outlaw” is an emotionally charged
buzzword––and while the outcome of much
animal testing is that the animals are poisoned,
there is no requirement other than in
the classic and now little used LD50 test that
poisoning per se should result.
Question seven of the DDAL “survey”
is, not surprisingly, “Please indicate
the amount you will contribute.”
P.S.––Do you know why appeal letters
always have a postscript? It’s because
people always read them––and lots of people,
who already know when they get an appeal
that they like the group and want to support
it, just read the postscript to see how much
money they’re supposed to send.
The P.S. is yet another attentiongetting
device, neutral in itself, that can help
you as much as it helps the fundraiser. Just
remind yourself that it is an attention-getting
device. It’s not there because it’s something
the fundraiser previously forgot to mention,
or because some extra urgent need came up
as the appeal was going to press. Rather, it’s
a reminder that the purpose of this whole
exercise is getting you to give money.
P.P.S.––Give wisely. We’d rather
you slept on our appeal overnight and then
sent $50 than have you send $25 right away.
The most reputable charities will tend to have
that attitude. Sure, we’d all like to get the
biggest donation we can. But the charity that
seems too afraid to let you think about it
probably has a reason.

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