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Peter Funt: In fundraising, father knew best

An unsolicited solicitation package from Boys Town arrived by mail the other day, earlier and bulkier than usual. I’ve given to a lot of charities, but the Nebraska-based organization, founded in 1917 by Father Edward Flanagan, has never been one of them. Yet, the volume of free stuff they sent this year made me wonder about the effectiveness of guilt-driven marketing.

The “Christmas Appeal” package included three pens (two ballpoints and one felt tip), two pairs of socks, a full-color 2023 wall calendar, eight holiday cards with envelopes, a sheet of gift labels and, predictably, dozens of personalized return address stickers.

Can it possibly pay to invest in so much merchandise for someone with no history of donating? It would seem so, because Boys Town pretty much invented the model and has been using it effectively since 1923 when Father Flanagan mailed his first free calendar. During the Depression, when times and fundraising were tough, he even sent out woolen blankets.

Today, Boys Town receives about $160 million in annual donations, more than half of it from direct mail appeals.

As I examined the loot I wondered what to do. The pens are useful, the calendar is rather nice, and the greeting cards alone will save me several dollars come December. But am I obliged to make a donation? The Federal Trade Commission clearly states, “You may keep such shipments as free gifts.” But that doesn’t address the emotional quandary.

I placed a call to Thomas Lynch, Director of Community Service Programs at Boys Town. A chipper fellow, he began by saying that Father Flanagan, who died in 1948, was “a marketing genius,” who knew that people would be more likely to read a solicitation if it was accompanied by a gift (puzzle books were early favorites). He found, as Mr. Lynch noted, “Many people feel that if they receive a gift they should give one in return.”

Moreover, Flanagan determined that it was acceptable to lose money in a mail campaign’s initial years as long as it paid out over time. “Once someone sends a donation,” Mr. Lynch explains, “they and their families will be donors for a long time, maybe for generations.”

As mailing costs climbed in recent decades, many charities looked for other channels to reach potential donors. But Boys Town doubled down beginning in 2005, increasing its direct mail spending 70%. By 2012 net profit from the campaigns had doubled.

Boys Town gathers a lot of feedback from donors. One thing that came clear was that people enjoy the free gifts more if they don’t have the words Boys Town on them, which is why the greeting cards and even the socks are not branded.

Mr. Lynch refused comment on his costs of acquisition. He did mention that the socks — kids’ size, with holiday images — are new, so it’s too early to tell if they will be effective as fund-raisers. Or guilt producers.

“Some people pay the postage and send it all back to us,” Mr. Lynch conceded. Do they ever include a donation? “No,” he said. “I’m afraid that doesn’t happen.”

Peter Funt’s new memoir, “Self-Amused,” is now available at

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