High in the pantheon of elegant fundraisers is Mothers Against Drunk Driving, whose only business is public education.
This, in opposition to many charities that only claim it’s their business. A particularly egregious example occurred during the early 1990s, when Somali poachers were decimating herds of elephants (and occasional tourists who got in the way) in neighboring Kenya and selling the ivory.
Only two American animal-protection organizations — African Wildlife and Wildlife Conservation International — actively were involved in saving the African elephant, with operatives in Washington, D.C., lobbying against the sale of ivory and folks in the bush trying to scare off poachers.
Yet a legion of crassly dishonest animal-protection and conservation organizations sent out mailings pleading for money to save the elephants. None of the money went to the elephants (or their defense); rather, groups used the money to make mailings to raise money to make mailings ad infinitum.
The rationale: They were raising the public’s consciousness about the plight of African elephants. This was bogus, since the plight of African elephants was all over the media like a cheap suit. If a donor gave money to one of these ersatz elephant savers one day and then received a mailing from one of the legitimate charities the next day, it would go in the circular file. “But I just gave to the elephants yesterday” would be the rationale.
So, these organizations were actually hurting the very cause they were claiming to help. As one who has been on three photographic safaris in Africa, this made me mad as hell.
The grand exception: MADD
Quite simply, MADD is in the business of working to alter behavior, to remind people of the consequences of driving when drunk and to urge drinkers (1) not to drive or (2) make sure a completely sober designated driver is behind the wheel.
Founded in 1980 by Candy Lightner, whose 13-year-old daughter was killed by a drunken driver, MADD was born of tragedy and run by passionate people dedicated to leaving the world a better place than when they found it.
When you send MADD money, no doubt exists where that money goes: to make more mailings to educate people and swell the membership of local organizations that, in turn, will change behavior and influence lawmakers and judges. Probably the best way to pound home the dangers of drinking and driving would be a MADD effort in the mailbox of every person of legal drinking age in America every day of the year. It is a truly splendid organization doing great, great works.
The MADD control mailing
Over the years, I have received a slew of MADD mailings. In the past, they were highly charged efforts, always with personalized return-address labels and the bright-red MADD logo. When people used these labels on their mail, it multiplied the message many times over — a reminder not to drink and drive.
And talk about emotional appeals … here’s the lead of a Christmas effort some years ago, written in typewriter type (“A letter should look like a letter,” said the late guru Dick Benson):
These address labels can help insure the safe arrival of your holiday mail. If only we could do the same for our friends and loved ones!
Dear Special Friend,
What will you and your family remember about this holiday season? The doorbell …
… as friends and loved ones arrive for a joyous celebration, or …
… as a policeman begins by saying, “I’m sorry, there’s been a crash.”
The telephone …
… with a cheerful greeting from a friend or family member, or …
… with the tragic message that someone close to you has been killed or seriously injured.
So what happened?
Strong stuff. So, when I saw the current MADD control, I was disappointed. The old raw emotion and bite are gone. Even the MADD logo is in a different, sanitized, sans serif font. It arrives in a 6-inch-by-11-inch envelope that opens endwise and is loaded with personalization. Turn the envelope over, and you can see the contents through the semi-opaque paper. Remove the contents, and the inside of the envelope has a bunch of facts and figures that, unfortunately, are unreadable through the covering.
Every piece is personalized with the person’s name or home town — the curious 41⁄2-inch-by-91⁄2-inch letter, the membership card, the back of the bright-yellow reply envelope, and the two sheets of personalized labels.
But MADD seems to have gone corporate, rational and analytical, sans the emotional appeal. The personalized stamps no longer have the MADD logo on them, bur rather children’s drawings of happy people, animals and shooting stars.
More to the point, the letter from MADD president Wendy J. Hamilton (in a large, sans serif font) begins:
Dear Nancy D----
I am writing today to ask your help in the Mothers Against Drunk Driving Owenton Area Annual Fund Campaign. If we hope to make America’s roads — and those in your area — safe for our families and loved ones, we really need your help!
In my opinion, this is an absolutely emotionless, colorless, truly ordinary lead. You can find the real reason Wendy is writing on the MADD Web site.
The heart of the matter
Wendy was inspired to get involved with MADD following the Sept. 19, 1984, car accident that killed her 32-year-old sister Becky and 22-month-old nephew, Timmy. Becky’s car was struck by that of a drunken driver, forcing the vehicle off the side of the road and several feet onto the grassy shoulder. Becky died instantly. Timmy died approximately two hours later, only moments before his father arrived at the hospital emergency room where Becky worked as an ER nurse.
Ultimately, the offender who caused the deaths served only 11 months of the two concurrent five-and-a-half-year prison terms to which he was sentenced.
And this wasn’t the first time this family had suffered a loss at the hands of a drunken driver. In the 1960s, Becky’s cousin John, 18, was killed as a result of riding with a friend who was driving drunk; and, before Becky was born, her uncle Robert, 20, was struck by an impaired driver while driving an ambulance.
Whew! Those two paragraphs contain gut-wrenching fear, guilt and anger. How can you not give to an organization that’s dedicated to decreasing occurrences of tragedies such as these? Yet none of this deeply personal story — or any of the other hundreds of stories MADD has in its files — is communicated in this oh-so-slick mailing with all the happy stickers.
Stick with the story
Freelance copywriter Harry Walsh writes: “The tone of a good direct mail letter is as direct and personal as the writer’s skill can make it. Even though it may go to millions of people, it never orates to a crowd but rather murmurs into a single ear. It’s a message from one letter writer to one letter reader.
“Tell a story if possible. Everybody loves a good story, be it about Peter Rabbit or King Lear. And the direct mail letter, with its unique person-to-person format, is the perfect vehicle for a story. Stories get read. The letter I wrote to launch the Cousteau Society 20-some years ago survived hundreds of tests against it. … The original of this direct mail Methuselah started out with this lead: ‘A friend once told me a curious story I would like to share with you … ‘”
That said, this MADD effort is obviously working, since it’s been received in the Who’s Mailing What? archive since 2001. But is it doing well? Or is it time for a new control? The answer could lie in the second paragraph of Wendy’s letter:
“You see, with everything that’s happened, we’ve seen a serious decrease in contributions, and we’re worried that some of our life-saving programs will suffer in the months ahead.”
This is a bland, serviceable effort. To read some excruciatingly powerful reasons to give money — indeed, devote your entire life — to MADD, go to www.madd.org. That’s where the action is.