Every trade has its pioneers, and so it was with professional fund raising, where three men in the early decades of the 20th century transformed the art of getting strangers to give in much the same way that Henry Ford and William Randolph Hearst changed the automotive and newspaper industries.
In 1900, charity in America was local and decentralized. But by 1930, foundations had become large national organizations, and charity became a largely impersonal exercise in check writing. There are many reasons why charities became bureaucratic, but one of them was the rise of the professional fund raiser. Not only was fund raising perfected in this period, but many of the techniques favored by fund raisers—time-limited campaigns, form letters, and celebrity endorsements—also came from this era.
Historian Scott Cutlip, whose history of fund raising is the most authoritative, credits three men with elevating raising money to an art—YMCA fund raisers Charles Sumner Ward and Frank L. Pierce, and William Lawrence, an Episcopalian bishop who perfected the college endowment campaign.
Ward and Pierce both rose through the ranks of the YMCA, and had spent a decade in small campaigns in various cities. But in 1902, Pierce was engaged in a two-year effort to raise funds for a new building for the Washington, D.C. YMCA. Although he had raised $270,000 for the building—including a $50,000 donation from John D. Rockefeller Sr.—an additional $80,000 was needed, and donations had stalled. So in 1905 the YMCA sent in Ward, and together Pierce and Ward invented what became known as the “YMCA school” of fund raising.
Pierce and Ward’s 1905 campaign was the first to hire a publicist, and the first to have advertising paid for through a corporate donation (from the department-store chain Woodward and Lothrop). Pierce and Ward also realized that a short campaign would get more publicity than a long one, and instituted a strict 27-day limit, measured by a “campaign clock.”
Pierce and Ward’s campaign was wildly successful, and turned them into fund raising’s first superstars. YMCAs around America begged them to come create campaign clocks (or, occasionally, “campaign thermometers”) in their cities. Shortly thereafter, Pierce and Ward’s fame became international. In 1907, Pierce introduced his methods to Australia, while by 1913 Ward, having returned from a triumphant tour of Britain, had successfully concluded a $4 million fund raising campaign for the New York City YMCA. He immediately followed that with a $3 million drive for the University of Pittsburgh.
Perfecting the Soft-Sell
Cutlip credits Harvard’s Bishop Lawrence with inventing the college endowment building drive. Lawrence was pastor of St. John’s Memorial Church at Harvard, and by 1904 was head of the Harvard alumni association. In a 1904 address at commencement, Lawrence announced that $2.5 million was needed to raise liberal arts professors’ salaries. Charles Eliot, Harvard’s president, asked Lawrence to head the campaign. Lawrence complied, and invented many successful techniques. In contrast to the ballyhoo of Pierce and Ward, Lawrence insisted that there be “no crowding and jamming of subscriptions.” All alumni got was a genteel letter suggesting that their help was needed. “If you dominate or dragoon a man by your personality,” Lawrence recalled in a 1923 Atlantic Monthly article, “you may get his money once, but not the next time.”
By 1905, Lawrence had raised $2.4 million. For the first time, colleges learned that alumni would give money for faculty salaries and endowment, not just for buildings. Lawrence put his skills to work on several smaller campaigns. But it wasn’t until a decade later that Lawrence became famous for two larger efforts. In 1914, Wellesley College burned to the ground, and Lawrence (who was a Wellesley trustee) successfully raised $2 million to rebuild the school, capped by a $750,000 contribution from John D. Rockefeller Jr. But Lawrence’s masterpiece was his 1916–17 drive for the Episcopalian Church’s pension fund.
Lawrence went to the publishers of major New York newspapers and asked them to quietly put in a good word for the Episcopalians in news stories. He recalled going to New York Times publisher Adolph Ochs and asking him, “What are you going to do about the old people?” When Ochs replied that he was worried about how veteran Times staffers would fare after they retired, Lawrence asked him to have his reporters write stories about suffering senior citizens, “and occasionally put in ‘the old minister’ and tell your readers what a solid job the Episcopal Church is trying to do for its old ministers—the Church Pension Fund.”
“We soon saturated the atmosphere of New York with the Church Pension Fund,” Lawrence later recalled. Within two weeks, patrons leaving swank Broadway theaters were heard to gossip about the pension fund drive. On a railway dining car to Boston, a donor walked past Lawrence and “pushed a five-dollar bill into my hand—that was holding a fork, too—and said, ‘Here’s something for your fund, Bishop.’”
By the end of the drive, Lawrence had raised $9 million for the pension fund, the biggest drive up until that time. But that was topped by a colossal $100 million drive for the American Red Cross, which during World War I operated as a semi-official auxiliary to the American Expeditionary Force. That drive was a joint effort between Ward and publicist Ivy Lee, best known for his efforts to persuade the press that John D. Rockefeller Sr. was no wicked monopolist, but a kindly old man who delighted in giving dimes to beatific children.
A $2,000 Hen
Lee and Ward pulled out all the stops in a three-month campaign. Big donors did their part—$8 million from U.S. Steel, $5 million from the Rockefeller Foundation, $1 million from industrialist Cleveland Dodge. But the little donations were celebrated as well. A woman in Ohio contributed a hen and twelve eggs, which were subsequently auctioned for $2,000. Many laborers contributed a day’s wage. By the end of the campaign, notes Lee’s biographer, Ray Eldon Hiebert, “a beautiful young Chicago aviatrix, Miss Katherine Stinson” barnstormed from Buffalo to Washington, and raised large amounts of funds from people who wanted to see a woman fly. By the end of the campaign, $114 million was raised for the Red Cross—and fund raisers raised their sights even higher.
World War I affected fund raising in another way. Secretary of State Newton D. Baker asked charities to temporarily merge to aid the war effort. This amalgamation, known as the United War Work Campaign, did not last long. But in many cases, charities found that working together as a “war chest” was an effective way to raise funds. After the war’s end, many of these charities continued to work together as “community chests.” (Still later, many of these community chests became chapters of the United Way.)
“Substituting ‘community’ for ‘war’ in their names,” Saturday Review science editor John Lear observed in a 1961 article, “they stopped selling bonds and sold the juice of human kindness instead. The idea was to pool all the needs of all those who had in one way or another been bested by their environment—the crippled, the sick, the hungry, the ragged. Pool them all and pay the bill in one grand scoop, as true brothers should.”
United Way historian Eleanor L. Brilliant observes that fund raisers existed prior to World War I, but primarily dealt with large donors. But after the war, fund raisers began to ask the lower and middle classes for aid. Businesses also began to receive more appeals and began to give more, thanks to a 1929 district court decision that, for the first time, allowed corporations to deduct charitable contributions from their corporate income taxes as business expenses.
A second reason for the need for more fund raisers was the boom in the creation of national nonprofits. Between 1919–22, notes Scott Cutlip, such still-important organizations as the National League of Girls’ Clubs, the Jewish Welfare Board, the Child Welfare League of America, the American Federation of the Blind, and the Big Brother and Big Sister Federation were founded.
The needs of these new national nonprofits seemed insatiable. “The giant campaigns and the numerous appeals placed in an enormous setting, stimulated by a vast emergency,” wrote 1920s fund raiser William J. Morton, “opened wide the hearts and purses of the people who poured into the lap of philanthropy sums equal to the ransom of kings. Once acquired, this habit could never shrink to the minor proportions prevailing before the war.”
The John Price Jones Corp., one of the new fund raising enterprises of the period, kept the best statistics on the amount Americans gave. According to the corporation, donations by Americans rose from $1.7 billion in 1921 to $2.7 billion in 1927. And John Price Jones himself was proud of his success in completing massive endowment-building campaigns—$4 million for Smith College, $9.5 million for Northwestern, $13.9 million for Harvard. Jones’s most successful drive was in raising $9.2 million for the endowments of Hampton and Tuskegee Institutes, two African-American institutions. This was 185 percent of the $5 million Jones expected to raise. (Typically, Jones and his competitors would receive a commission of up to 6 percent of the amount raised.)
Hurting Local Charities
Perhaps the loudest fund raising campaign of the 1920s was the successful effort of Republican politician Will Hays (later to become America’s national movie censor), Treasury Secretary Andrew Mellon, and fund raiser Arnaud C. Marts to raise $15 million for the Presbyterian Church’s pension fund.
The result was a triumph for the firm of Marts and Lundy, somewhat deflated by an irate private letter from humorist Will Rogers to Will Hays. “Dear Willie Hays,” the letter began, “Say, I got your letter about raising 15 Millions for the Presbyterians. My Lord, since you went into the Movies you got the Churches taking in Millions, 15 Millions, say, all the Presbyterians I ever knew couldn’t even SAY 15 MILLIONS. Who’s going to count it if you do get it, you will have to ask an Episcopalian to explain to you how much that is . . . I will help you on one condition, that is if you Presbyterians get your $15 million you will help us Methodists get $483.27. That’s our quota and we feel that we shot a little high on it. Do you know any rich man we could advertise as our Treasurer?”
An entertaining article by R. J. Prendergast in a 1928 American Mercury observed that fund raisers of the era advised their clients to think of a unique gimmick. Thus Colgate University launched its million-dollar drive by asking each alumnus to give $333. Williams College asked its donors to buy bricks for a new school gymnasium. On one evening, Yale University held dinners across the nation for its donors—and climaxed the dinners with a live radio broadcast from New Haven. Organizers of a memorial for president Warren G. Harding did the same thing—but their speech was by President Calvin Coolidge, and their broadcast was even heard in London.
The most audacious fund raising drive was held by New York University—or, as Prendergast sarcastically called it, “Greater and Greater New York University.” In 1927, NYU launched a $73 million, decade-long drive to celebrate the school’s centennial. “It will cost you $.30 a second, $18 a minute, $1,080 an hour to run the university,” one fund raising letter read. “Why not run it for a second, a minute, or an hour?”
But all this fund raising ensured that donors preferred the national to the local charity. Why give money to a local private school when your alma mater desperately needed to increase its endowment? Why support your local church when the Episcopalian Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City urgently needed help to complete its construction?
Thus by 1930, the professional fund raiser became an established part of the philanthropic world. And today’s development officers, as they work to persuade donors to contribute, are continuing to use techniques developed by Charles Sumner Ward, Lyman Pierce, and William Lawrence nearly a century ago.
Martin Morse Wooster is a contributing editor to Philanthropy and the author of the Capital Research Center publication Return to Charity? Philanthropy and the Welfare State, on which this article is based.