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#102 The Farkas Sloan Kettering Fracas
From:
Denny Hatch -- Direct Mail Expert Denny Hatch -- Direct Mail Expert
For Immediate Release:
Dateline: Philadelphia , PA
Tuesday, July 21, 2020

 
#102 Blogpost - Tuesday, July 21, 2020


The Farkas Chain Letter Fracas:
Fundraising at Its Most Elegant


In April, 1997 came the following letter from our friend Jon Saunders, creative director at Bozell Worldwide, Inc., on Bozell letterhead:

Mr. & Mrs. Dennison Hatch

310 Gaskill Street
Philadelphia, PA 19147

Dear Peggy & Denny,

I have been asked to help raise at least $500,000 to assist the Home Care Program/Memorial Sloan Kettering Center in completing its endowment.

The Home Care Program cares for homebound people living with catastrophic illness.  It offers psychological symptom control, without charge to them and their families/significant others. Care is available 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.  The interest from this endowment will enable the Program to secure the services of a home care nurse.  The more money raised, the greater the number of people whose needs will be met in a compassionate and professional manner.

In order to help reach this goal, we ask that you kindly do the following:

1.  Please forward a check for $10 (no more) made payable to “The Home Care Program, MSKC”, c/o (Physician in Charge), MD, 1275 York Avenue, New York, NY 10021.

2.  Please, retype this letter on your letterhead and send it to ten friends or individuals in your company or organization whom you know personally and know will be able to help.  With your letter, please send the names of those who received it along with the enclosed list of recipients to date.

All contributions are fully tax deductible.  No goods or services have been offered or received by you in consideration of your gift.  Thanks for joining me in supporting this worthwhile endeavor.

Best regards,

/s/   Jon

Enc.

It started small. 
Carol Garner Farkas (1945-2019) was not your professional fundraiser. A practicing Psychiatric Nurse Clinician for over 20 years in New York City and Westchester County and a 19-year volunteer at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, she was married to the former president of Alexander’s Department Stores.

With no fanfare she sent the simple one-page letter above to 24 couples—friends on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. “I didn’t ask permission,” she told Elizabeth Bumiller of The New York Times. “I just did it.”

According to Bumiller’s April 3, 1997, story in The New York Times, the letters crisscrossed the top echelons of business, law and entertainment nationwide; contributions came in from the likes of Elizabeth Taylor, Carrie Fisher, Gregory Peck and Lauren Bacall.  Not only did Lauren Bacall send in $10, but also she sent the letter off to the Sidney Lumets, the Arthur Schlesingers, the Tony Waltons (a top Broadway set designer who was formerly married to Julie Andrews), Betty Comden and Adolph Green and the Mike Nichols (she is Diane Sawyer).

Mike Nichols, in turn, sent the letter to Elaine May, Steve Martin, Whoopi Goldberg and Frank Langella, Pete Peterson (investment banker), Joan Ganz Cooney (founder of Sesame Workshop), Nora Ephron and Nick Pileggi (author of Goodfellas). 

And so it went.

Never mind that the mailing brought in over 14,000 checks for a total of $251,000 for Sloan Kettering. According to the Times, the folks at Memorial Sloan Kettering treated Mrs. Farkas (wife of the former chairman of Alexander's department stores) like a pariah.

The Times headline:
PUSHING THE ENVELOPE OF FUND-RAISING  
Volunteer's Chain Letter Embarrasses a Hospital.

From the Times Story:

Indeed, Sloan-Kettering is treating Mrs. Farkas, the wife of Robin L. Farkas, the former Alexander's chairman, as if she deserved quarantine.

“The hospital has asked her not to speak to the press and has distanced itself from a chain letter that officials said privately they considered tasteless and unbecoming to Sloan-Kettering's reputation (although the hospital is keeping the money the letter has raised).

'This is not a letter that was started by or sanctioned by the institution,'' said Avice A. Meehan, the hospital's spokeswoman. ''I think chain letters in general raise questions on the part of the U.S. Postal Service.

“Sloan-Kettering officials said that they had been inundated so far with 14,539 checks from the chain letter. In December and January, the checks arrived at a rate of 200 a week, and 50 to 100 a week continue to arrive. Hospital officials estimated the processing cost at $2 to $2.50 per check, and said each contributor receives a thank-you note as part of hospital policy.”

While neither Sloan-Kettering’s president nor director of fund raising, Alexander H. Chute, would comment to The Times on the promotion, a hospital spokeswoman said: “I think chain letters in general raise questions on the part of the U.S. Postal Service.”

I spoke by phone to Alexander Chute, who reported that this letter “has been investigated by everybody and has been found to be totally clean. We have done nothing to encourage a thing; at the same time we couldn’t stop it.”

It is emphatically not a chain letter, because it doesn't promise the sender a jackpot, nor does it require a fee. Yet Cheryl Bell of the Metropolitan New York Better Business Bureau pompously proclaimed: "This could damage the reputation of the charity because most chain letters are scams."

        
Carol Farkas

What poppycock! Look at what has happened:

1. A well-meaning amateur—with no fund-raising experience—sent a letter out to 24 couples asking for a small donation to be sent directly to a cause she believed in. Clearly, she was an intuitive Method Marketer, having gotten into the heads and under the skin of her friends with her absolute honesty. What’s more she only asked for ten dollars; it’s probably safe to assume not one of these stars and nabobs had been asked for so paltry a sum since they were in college.

2. The friends were obviously in the upper education and income strata, because they had the wherewithal to get ten personal letters out along with photocopies of the list.

3. These ten, in turn, sent it to ten others in this upper league of power, money and influence.

4. The United States Postal Service should be thrilled.  Instead of going out at the brutally low Non-Profit Rate, all these letters were mailed with highly profitable First Class postage.

5. The mailings cost Memorial Sloan-Kettering nothing. Zip. Nada. No creative. No production. No postage. No postage for reply mail. All revenue was pure profit!

6. No fund raising agencies got their greedy hooks into this promotion to claim their pound of flesh. Again, all revenue was pure profit!

In short, this is fund raising perfection. 
As of July 1997, according to Chute, the promotion had brought in 24,000 new donors whose average give of $17 made for a total of $408,000.

The headline of a story by David Segal, The Florida Times Union: 
Letters Cough Up $800,000 $10 Gifts Swamp Miffed Hospital

Dunno where Segal got the $800,000 number. With an exponentially expanding list of contributors all things are possible.

Imagine! Twenty-four thousand brand new donors whose combined net worth was in the tens of billions—people Sloan-Kettering would never have been able to reach under ordinary circumstances with ordinary pleas for money!
        
What’s more, the scheme is self-perpetuating. “Checks will probably be coming in long after I’m dead,” Chute confided.

When I first covered this effort for Target Marketing, I pompously wrote: “Be advised that this entire caper is an aberration; any fund raiser who tried to build a marketing plan and a business using this technique by itself would be positively nuts.” 

I wish I could take that back.

As Carol Farkas said to the Times: ''We need the money,'' she said. ''If it goes on forever, great.''

Takeaways to Consider: 
• This promotion is textbook magnificent direct mail. Here’s why:

• Let’s start with email: 
The first thing I look at when I see an email in my in-box is the “FROM” line. If it is from…

… someone I know well and like and respect…

… and know that person will not be wasting my time…

… I absolutely will click-to-open it. It’s a 100% click rate.

• Conversely, if the FROM line is someone I don’t know, and I’m busy or in a foul mood, chances are I will delete without reading.

• On the computer you are a mouse click away from oblivion. 

• Let’s talk about the Carol Farkas effort: 

… It came via direct mail. An envelope that had to be physically handled.

… The cornercard (upper left) said Jon Saunders (a dear friend) at Bozell.

… Our names were neatly typed. Not on a label. This was the real deal.

… In the upper right was a USPS First Class Stamp. Not a metered indicia, not a printed indicia (indicating this was NOT about Bozell business, but rather something personal from Jon Saunders who obviously paid for the stamp rather than send it to the Bozell mail room and cheat his company.).

… Ergo, I opened it, natch.

"All mail is sorted over a wastebasket."
—Leah Pierce, Freelancer


• The late Gary Halbert (1945-2020) was a flamboyant, hugely successful direct mail entrepreneur and copywriter. Throughout his career he proclaimed:

• "People have two piles of incoming mail: the 'A' pile and “B” pile.

• "The 'A' pile is personal stuff—bills, personal letters, business letters or a scrawled note from the kid in college asking for emergency money.

• "The 'B' pile is everything else. For example, it has a printed BULK MAIL postage indicia in the upper right corner and blazing teaser copy that announces this is advertising mail.


• "Halbert loved to amuse his audiences with a riff. 'Imagine an envelope from your lawyer with a huge teaser: 'HERE’S HOT NEWS ABOUT YOUR NEW LAWSUIT!'

• "Everybody opens all of their 'A' pile mail. If people don’t know what’s in an envelope, they’ll open it.

• "The object for direct mailers: Get your 'B' offer into the prospect’s 'A' pile.

• "Ergo: never use Bulk Rate and never use teasers or indicia on an envelope you absolutely want opened."


• Ain’t no “A” pile or “B” pile in email. If it’s in your in-box, it all looks the same.

• “Short words! Short sentences! Short paragraphs!”

— Andrew J. Byrne, Freelancer

“Success in direct mail is 40% lists, 40% offer, 20% everything else.” 
—Ed Mayer 

• Carol Farkas followed this dictum slavishly… 

… The List: Anybody that received this letter was on the sender’s “A” list.

… The Offer: “Please forward a check for $10 (no more) to…” 

Foolproof instructions. Carol tells you precisely what to do.
1.  Please forward a check for $10 (no more) made payable to “The Home Care Program, MSKC”, c/o (Physician in Charge), MD, 1275 York Avenue, New York, NY 10021.

2.  Please, retype this letter on your letterhead and send it to ten friends or individuals in your company or organization whom you know personally and know will be able to help.  With your letter, please send the names of those who received it along with the enclosed list of recipients to date.

All contributions are fully tax deductible.  No goods or services have been offered or received by you in consideration of your gift.  Thanks for joining me in supporting this worthwhile endeavor.

• Asking someone to “retype this letter on your letterhead and send it to ten friends”… is a big ask, but…
… all these folks are “A” listees with plenty of money and office help. They can simply hand off the task to a secretary to type 10 letters and envelopes, get the sender’s signature, make 10 Xerox copies of the list of donors, insert the elements in the envelopes, affix the First Class Stamps and mail them.

• A Collateral Bonus: Farkas gave the glitterati something fun to talk about at cocktails and dinner parties.

• Ya gotta love it!


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Name: Denny Hatch
Group: Denny Hatch's Marketing Blog
Dateline: Philadelphia, PA United States
Direct Phone: 215-644-9526
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