Non-Profit Marketing Secrets of the World’s Greatest Fundraiser

An ETR reader recently wrote to us with this question: “I am working on increasing the success of a nonprofit American Cancer Society telethon in my hometown. I am hoping to use effective marketing to increase its profit and success, and I have a year to do so. As a marketing expert, do you have any advice or can you offer any assistance in this project?”

Unfortunately, my combined experience in these particular areas of direct marketing — telethons and fundraising — could fit easily into a thimble. So, to answer this reader’s question, I turned to my erstwhile (see “Word to the Wise,” below) colleague Jerry Huntsinger for some help. Jerry, described to me by a colleague recently as “the top fundraising copywriter on the planet,” specializes in direct mail, not television.

But his advice can still help us here:

1. Know your audience. Based on his decades of experience, Jerry tells us that you should aim your fundraising message, entertainment, and programming toward women in their 60s — because they are the viewers most likely to donate.

2. Offer a “response premium.” Offering a free gift in return for a donation works well in fundraising in general, and it is especially effective in telethons. You rarely see a public television fundraising campaign that doesn’t involve tote bags, books, videos, and other prizes given for varying levels of donations. Does the American Cancer Society have materials that you can offer as premiums? Ask. For instance, viewers might desire a report on the latest advances in cancer research — and if they have to send in a modest donation to get it, offering the report as a premium may increase your total pledges.

3. Keep in mind the reason that people give money. “When I write a fundraising package,” says Jerry, “I interweave two subjects in the copy: the benefits to those who will be helped by the donation, and the benefits to the person giving the donation — which is primarily that they will feel good about themselves.” So, during the telethon, appeal to both your viewer’s emotions and her intellect. Tell moving stories about people who are struggling with cancer and how the American Cancer Society has helped so many cope with the disease.

4. Keep it local. If you can focus on the stories of a few local cancer patients who have been helped through the generosity of the Society, so much the better. As Joseph J. Kelley Jr., a former Eisenhower-administration speechwriter, observed: “If a newspaper reports the sad story of a youngster dying of cancer and how the family is planning an early Christmas for him, letters, money, and gifts will come to them from perfect strangers. People sympathize with and are saddened by the plight of an individual.”

5. Inject some positive news into your program. Tell your audience about breakthroughs in cancer research, hope for a cure, important research funded through the Society — and how their donations will be used.

6. Appeal to your audience emotionally and rationally. “It is emotion that prompts the urge to donate,” says Huntsinger, “but people often rationalize the decision to give money intellectually before mailing the check or picking up the phone to pledge.” So include both emotional and logical appeals. An emotional appeal: Timmy’s family has new hope, thanks to the American Cancer Society — and your pledge can help more families like his. A logical appeal: 3,727 cancer researchers receive funding from the ACS.

7. Recruit some local “talent” — even a radio DJ or TV news anchor — to appear. Celebrities always help increase donations. Last year, for example, the celebrity-laden 38th annual Jerry Lewis telethon for the Muscular Dystrophy Association raised a record-breaking $60 million in 21-1/2 hours.

8. Try to convince the American Cancer Society to time its fundraising mailings to your city to coincide with the telethon. It shouldn’t be hard to do. They are probably aware that response rates to their direct-mail efforts will be higher during that time. (Publishers Clearinghouse always gets its best direct-mail response rates when their mailings coincide with the airing of their TV commercials.) Take advantage of these eight fundraising “secrets” and your telethon — and you — will be a huge success!

(Ed. Note: Bob Bly is the editor of Mailbox Millionaire, ETR’s program to help you start your own successful direct-mail business. For information, click on