Jerry Huntsinger: 80-years young

Jerry Huntsinger was born on the 25 July 1933 in Salina Kansas. When he finished his education, his family wanted him to be a minister and so he served in the Methodist Church. But he wasn’t happy, he says it was, ‘Three miserable years, I had no interest in theology or saving souls.’

Written by
Gwen Chapman
Added
May 08, 2010

Jerry Huntsinger was born on the 25 July 1933 in Salina Kansas. When he finished his education, his family wanted him to be a minister and so he served in the Methodist Church. But he wasn’t happy, he says it was, ‘Three miserable years, I had no interest in theology or saving souls.’

With his wife’s encouragement he set out to find his way in life. He explains,

‘Before – and during – my three-year failure as a minister I wanted to be a journalist, a novelist, a writer of screenplays, a reincarnation of Ernest Hemingway.’

“Jerry, just write a letter to your grandmother.”

‘When I finally got a job with a charity as a public relations writer, it turned out that my job was to write fundraising letters. And since I didn’t have a clue about how to write a letter, I was put on probation and sent to the mailroom.

‘I noticed that most of the cheques were written by individuals with extremely shaky handwriting. This resulted in the most important epiphany in my life: "Jerry, just write a letter to your grandmother."

‘I did. And later I got my first commercial job – a letter for the Palatine Fathers – and I wrote a one-pager, yes, to my grandmother.

‘This letter came in third in a three-way test. So for my next assignment I wrote a two-page letter. When that worked, I stopped writing one-page letters.

It wasn’t long before Jerry Huntsinger was successful enough to start his own company and began what he calls his ‘years of adventure’. And he certainly had his share of adventures.

In his own words, 

‘I spent a lot of time overseas, taking pictures and interviewing unfortunate children and adults with terrible and life-threatening problems.

‘I experienced the joys of tear gas in Seoul, Korea, while filming a student riot. And was knocked in the mud on a narrow sidewalk by a burly North Korean sergeant in the demilitarised zone between the Koreas.

‘I slept underground in the offshore island of Quemoy while the communists shelled above on odd days. I took pictures of orphans on even days.

‘I got caught behind the enemy line during the Tet offensive in Vietnam and had to figure out a way to get back to Saigon on my own since, as a civilian, the military would not provide me with an escort.

‘I survived an assassination attempt in Madras, India, when a national executive mistook me for an auditor and poisoned me.

‘I was escorted at gunpoint from a refugee camp in Bethlehem. And so on.’

And so on… there was more?

This was the period of time when Jerry’s amateur photography appeared in many American magazines, won some awards and was selected for publication in advertising textbooks.

After he got all this adventuring out of his system, Jerry took his parenting role a little more seriously and stayed at home. He started several companies, recruited staff and took part in the growth of today’s successful fundraising techniques using television, radio, magazines, newspapers, direct mail, telemarketing and, later, the Internet.

Fundraising Letters was recognised as the most comprehensive textbook available on the subject.

He was a busy man. 

‘I gave speeches and conducted seminars and wrote professional articles about letters. I cataloged the rules. I got my share of awards.

‘In 1982 the first edition of Fundraising Letters was published. At that time it was recognised as the most comprehensive textbook available on the subject.

‘Then one morning, I woke up in a Hilton Hotel room, remembering a word used by another speaker: the Internet. I was stricken by a terrible fear. The what?

‘I went home that day, sold my companies and tried to understand the Internet thing: without much luck.

‘But I started writing letters again and discovered that I was really not very good at it. So I stopped giving speeches about fundraising letters and stopped writing books and magazine articles on the subject. I freed myself from my own rules.'

Jerry Huntsinger went on to work for many years with his long-time friend – and SOFII’s too – Roger Craver. And, on his own, he stayed busy writing letters, packages and Internet appeals.

‘You've got to be real dumb to keep on doing something that doesn't work.’

For the sake of survival he’s stayed current with all the latest trends. No way is Jerry Huntsinger going to be outdistanced by a younger writer who has a better grasp of technology than he does.

‘On the other hand,’ he says, ‘I'm grounded in fundamentals. Through the decades I’ve discovered that some things work, some things don’t – and you've got to be real dumb to keep on doing something that doesn't work.’

Jerry and his wife have been together for over 55 years, have both survived cancer scares, and now live in a small cottage on the seventeenth fairway of the Hanover Country Club, where he is trying to learn to play golf. They share their home with Maggie the dog, who is house trained, but not house broken.

As a hobby he works for a video game development company in London in the UK and creates original theme music and sound effects for historical video games. A labour of love, since no one in the video game market can afford to quit their day jobs.

And he can indulge in the luxury of observing that since 1965, there has never been a year when he hasn’t had at least one control package being mailed nationally by a major nonprofit organisation. What an achievement.

Jerry Huntsinger, fundraising legend, happy eightieth birthday!

​To mark Jerry’s eightieth birthday SOFII has selected 12 treasures from the Jerry Huntsinger tutorials.

© SOFII Foundation 2010-2014.

About the author: Gwen Chapman

Gwen Chapman

The Jerry Huntsinger Tutorials are edited and presented by Gwen Chapman.

Gwen Chapman is a passionate advocate for donor-centric fundraising. She is a senior consultant with international experience in the non-profit sector in Canada, the United States, the UK and South Africa.

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