Unit­ed Negro Col­lege Fund: David Ogilvy’s letter

Exhibited by
June 10, 2013
Medium of Communication
Direct mail
Target Audience
Type of Charity
Country of Origin
Date of first appearance

SOFII’s view

Adrian Salmon, fundraiser at the University of Leeds, gave his story at Once Upon I Wish I’d Thought of That in an entertaining and different way. He took the audience back in time to meet one of commuters who found a superb letter from David Ogilvy on the train taking him to his comfortable home in Pleasantville.

SOFII wonders what Betty did make for dinner that evening.

To raise money for the United Negro College Fund.


‘Man, what a day!! The heat was boiling off the pavements as I stepped out of the offices of my advertising agency - Salmon, Herring, Pollock and Hake on Madison Avenue.
‘Thank the Lord it was just a couple of blocks walk west to Grand Central and the 5:09 Harlem Line to Pleasantville. I wonder what Betty would have rustled up for dinner? In this heat I could use a damn good Daiquiri or two and, hell, I reckoned I’d earned them.
‘It had been a great month for Salmon, Herring, Pollock and Hake.
‘Three pitches. And we’d won them all.
‘I’d been so busy with the contract paperwork I hadn’t looked out of my window all day.
‘There were going to be plenty of jobs in our shop for the new crop of rookies from the Ivy League colleges come the fall – we’d be able to lure them away from Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce for sure.
‘Hell, we might even snag one or two that would have gone to Ogilvy and Mather, I’d like to have seen David Ogilvy’s face when he found out he’d lost out to us on two pitches this week.
‘We were on the up! I’d blown the girls in the typing pool a kiss as I’d headed out the door. I even dropped a smile and a wave to Joe the post boy, I was that happy.
‘Nice kid, Joe. Black kid. 17 years old and saving for college, Christine my secretary told me. Well good luck to him on that one. I know what my ma and pa would have said about that, “For Pete’s sake, Harold, who needs a servant with a college degree?” But I’d seen the riots in ’64 and after Dr King’s death – things weren’t going to stay the same for too much longer.
‘Maybe Joe would end up at Fisk or Howard if he could save up enough – become a doctor or a lawyer in a black neighbourhood, who knew? Maybe he’d even end up on Madison Avenue, like Georg Olden and Vince Cullers, two of the best ad men I’d met, and black.
‘Grand Central was heaving. I got myself down to track 109 and onto the 5:09, into my usual carriage. But today it looked different.
‘There were white envelopes on every seat, headed… “An important message to commuters”.
‘My interest was piqued. I opened the envelope and saw the words
To: Commuters
From: David Ogilvy
‘A word from on high! I may have beaten him in two pitches, but this was still a message from god for an ad man like me. What was this about?
'A plain letterhead, just the letters ”UNCF – United Negro College Fund, Inc.”
‘And the first sentence,
When this train emerges from the tunnel at 108th Street this evening,look out of the window.
‘The tunnel’s just a minute or two out of Grand Central. I hadn’t looked out of a window all day. I looked out.
And I saw the houses. I saw the kids like Joe, going home to their families. And I read David Ogilvy’s letter as I looked.
’How these kids had no chance of getting into Harvard or Yale.
’How just two-thirds of one percent of the students in the New England colleges were black.
’How huge the gap was between the amount my alma mater, and those of the guys I was on the train with, received in donations and the amount David Ogilvy wanted to raise to send black kids to college.
‘Sixty-four to one: those kinds of odds aren’t exactly fair to anyone.
‘And he asked us to do something imaginative.
‘Take a percentage of what I’d have given to my old place and give it to the UNCF on top. Ten percent, fifty percent he said.
You be the judge. Write a cheque after dinner tonight.
Do something imaginative.
‘Well my alma mater hadn’t got a penny out of me yet.
‘But for these kids, the kids I saw, the kids like Joe, I might well do something.
‘I got out of the train at Pleasantville. Before I went, I carefully tucked the envelope and the letter into my inside pocket.
‘I noticed there weren’t many left on the seats.
‘I wondered again what Betty had got on for dinner tonight.’

Special characteristics

The great David Ogilvy knew that his audience was going to be pretty well-heeled and well-educated. He knew about the concept of ‘dwell time’ years before it was invented. His audience were on that train and had the time to read the letter. If he got them to look out of the window, they would see the young people he was talking about. Young people that by doing something imaginative they could help.

Influence / Impact

The United Negro College Fund? Sounds desperately old-fashioned, a bit embarrassing maybe, to our ears?

Well, it’s still around. It’s raised over $3 billion to send black and ethnic minority students to college in the US since 1944.

And – although this is obviously a controversial statistic – from Oxford’s 2012 admission statistics, just four-fifths of one percent of students admitted are of black British identity.

We can’t just point the finger at Oxford, or any other university for that, I hasten to add. The problem starts much, much earlier and there’s a lot more around performance in school, A-level results and encouraging applications that has to be addressed. And that takes time, resources and money.

The USA has had a charity working on it since 1944, now helping to send more than 60,000 minority and under-served students to college a year, with nationwide tours targeting students even before they reach high school. Their motto is ‘a mind is a terrible thing to waste’.

I wish I’d thought of that.

And the gap between donations to US universities and ours in the UK at the moment?

$30.3 billion dollars a year plays £774 million – nearly 30 to one.

And that’s why I’m a university fundraiser.


David Ogilvy’s letter for the United Negro College Fund, left on the seats of commuter trains out of Grand Central on 24 June, 1968, raised $26,000 in one night.

In today’s money – that’s between $200,000 and $300,000.

He had a captive audience with the time to read and the beneficiaries right there, where he could show them to people. So he did, and he raised a ton of money.

I wish I’d thought of that too.


The letter is very well-written, but most of all it has been carefully planned. David Ogilvy knew his audience, knew that they would have time on their hands and that he could show them the people he wanted to help.

SOFII’s Once Upon I Wish I’d Thought Of That 2013 – Adrian Salmon presents UNCF.

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The tunnel’s just a minute or two out of Grand Central.
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I saw the kids like Joe.
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I read how these kids had no chance of getting into Harvard or Yale.
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Just two-thirds of one percent of the students in the New England colleges were black.
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Sixty-four to one: those kinds of odds aren’t exactly fair to anyone.
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‘Do something imaginative for the kids,’ he said.
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For these kids, the kids like Joe, I might well do something.