Won’t you please take generously?

September 10, 2008

Why would a non-profit organization make a cash donation to the decidedly for-profit entity known as Jorg Pierach? 

The answer might surprise you.

The aforementioned donation came yesterday in the form of a not-so-crisp dollar bill paper-clipped to a Holiday-themed form letter, all contained in a see-through envelope.  Having been raised to understand the value of a buck, I opened the mailing, jammed the dollar into my pocket and perused the contents to determine the name of my new benefactor. 

Turns out it was an organization called the Coalition to Salute America’s Heroes, (CSAH) a non-profit that says it provides “emergency aid to severely wounded troops and their families in crisis.”  The direct mail appeal came under the signature of retired Brigadier General Chip Diehl. “Dear Patriotic American”  the letter began.  Uh oh. So much for targetting. I’ve lived in the U.S. for 40 years, and love my adopted country, but I’m a citizen of Germany. I forgave the error. The Brigadier General couldn’t have known.  “Christmas should be a joyful time to spend at home with our families,” the letter continued. “But sadly many of our severely wounded servicemen and women will spend this Christmas season worrying about whether they could actually lose their homes because of financial difficulties.”  Sad, but true, I thought.  The letter went on to describe the mission of CSAH, and concluded with the following post-script: “You may not be able to alleviate the physical suffering of our troops wounded in Iraq or Afghanistan.  But you can help relieve the financial pain they’re feeling right now by sending a contribution to the Coalition to Salute America’s Heroes.  Please give generously.” 

It seemed to me to be the usual tug-at-your heart strings, not-too-sophisticated form of fundraising appeal we’ve all gotten a thousand times.  It was impersonal, poorly designed, a little too sappy, far too long, and other than the dollar bill, did little to stand out from the countless direct mail pieces we all end up tossing into the recycling bin. 

The execution of this direct mail piece was so poor, and the cause seemed so worthwhile, I figured I’d whip up a little post about how even the best intentions of resource-strapped non-profits too often get lost in unsophisticated and outdated outreach efforts like the trainwreck that arrived in my mailbox.  The point of my post was going to be that many non-profits, like this one, apparently, don’t know how and when to ask for probono marketing help.

So to prepare for this post, I did a little research on the Coalition for Saluting America’s Heroes. Man did I get an education. 

Turns out these guys know exactly what they are doing, and, sadly, it’s beyond sleazy.  The “good soul” behind Coalition for Saluting America’s Heroes is actually a slimeball named Roger Chapin, who calls himself “non-profit entreprenuer.” Over the years, he’s raised tens of millions of dollars with exactly this kind of direct mail appeal on behalf of dozens of legal non-profits.  Typically only about 25 cents of every dollar he raises for his charities ever makes it to the unsuspecting donors’ intended beneficiaries.  The rest goes to, among other things, lavish homes, country club memberships, food, travel and bloated salaries for Chapin and his wife. Not to mention bad direct mail pieces.  And lots of them. Chapin was recently hauled before Congress to explain all of this, and a philanthropy watchdog group consistantly gives his non-profits failing grades.  And here’s the kicker: it’s all legal, and while some of his shenanigans are under investigation by the New York Attorney General’s Office, he’s continuing to set up these sorts of sham non-profits. Brutal.

There are plenty of legitimate and effective organizations helping vets and their families.  If you’re moved to help, consider sending ’em a little something as the holidays approach.  Tell ’em Brigadier General Chip Diehl sent you.  And if you happen to work with a non-profit that truly is trying to cut through the marketing clutter to move your mission forward, don’t ever hesitate to knock on the doors of marketing, design, interactive, PR and advertising agencies for a little free advice and some fresh ideas. We love to be asked.