Deerfield Academy: Bruce Barton’s fundraising letters from the 1940s, letters 1 and 2

Exhibited by
SOFII
Added
June 02, 2011
Medium of Communication
Direct mail.
Target Audience
Individuals, single gift.
Type of Charity
Children, youth and family.
Country of Origin
USA.
Date of first appearance
1944.

SOFII’s view

The 22 letters in this series written between 1944 and 1960 reputedly raised over US$2 million, enough money to secure the future for an important American private school. They have been described as ‘some of the best examples of fundraising in history’. Great fundraising letters are rare and are always worth studying. Bruce Barton was an exceptional copywriter (see SOFII’s exhibit on the mailing that drew 100 per cent response, here) and there’s no doubt that his letters are among the most instructive examples available to fundraisers today. Serious direct mail copywriters will study these letters carefully and will profit accordingly.

Bruce Barton, presumably, on his own initiative, as a volunteer.

Name of exhibitor

Ken Burnett

The letters were written to raise money for Barton’s old school, Deerfield Academy. His objective in writing them is expressed in the first letter, when he says, ‘Our (his small informal committee’s) proposal is to canvas the possibility of finishing now the task which the panic of 1929 interrupted – to make Deerfield secure for the future.’

Background

SOFII is once again grateful to Fergal Byrne for sending us these letters, which are an important part of the history of fundraising. Bruce Barton was the founder of the international advertising agency BDO – Barton, Durstine and Osborn (later BBDO). The fundraising abilities of the other two are unknown, but Bruce Barton was a prolific and proficient creator of fundraising letters and his work can still inspire and inform fundraisers today. See his earlier exhibit on SOFII. On his election to Congress Barton was described by Time magazine as ‘Red-haired, blue-eyed Bruce Barton, a 54-year old advertising tycoon who made millions selling Americans on reading (Dr Eliot's five-foot shelf); on clean collars (Cluett-Peabody collar ads); on shaving (Gillette); on working (Alexander Hamilton Institute); on Jesus and the Bible (The Man Nobody Knows, The Book Nobody Knows). A born preacher and sloganeer, a superb luncheon-club speaker.’ He was also a journalist, an author, a politician and in many ways a larger-than-life character.

Special characteristics

Barton clearly was someone who expects 100 per cent response, as can be seen from the first paragraph of the first of these letters. He also writes in a warm, friendly, cosy style that is very engaging and easy to read. He effortlessly gets the reader on his side with lots of ‘you’ and ‘we’. He writes as a third party, closer to the recipient than the school because he too is a parent, he’s proud of the school and what it’s done for him and he wants only what’s best for it, with no hint of self interest. These letters are authentic and sincere. He paints brilliant verbal pictures, as you’ll see when you read the letters. His affectionate observation of detail is very appealing. The detail of the feedback that he provides, notably in the second letter, is a lesson in itself. I particularly like his disarming final comment in that letter. ‘This is a family matter; don’t hesitate to be frank.’

Influence / Impact

I believe these letters were widely admired at the time, and with good reason. They may even have helped form the convention of direct mail letter writing that fundraisers follow so faithfully today.

Details

Given their provenance, there would not have been tests.

Costs

Not available, but likely to be very low and probably covered by Barton himself.

Results

Though we have no information on response, it’s not hard to imagine that these letters worked rather well.

Merits

Apart from their historical interest these letter are full of good stuff all fundraisers could copy.

We have 22 of these letters and all are available on SOFII now. To view all the other exhibits in this great series see links opposite.