#Inspiringfundraising: Meet Roger Craver

Legendary fundraiser and social movement organizer, Roger Craver, on almost 60 years of raising hell and making social change.

Daryl Upsall, interviews one of his all-time fundraising heroes, friend and comrade Roger M. Craver both below in print and in conversation with him Zoom here (Parental guidance recommended!)

Roger is the Editor-in-Chief of The Agitator, a three-times-a week blog tips, trends and analysis of fundraising – with an edge.  Delivered for the past 15 years The Agitator aims to challenge complacency and conventional wisdom while placing an emphasis on applying behavioural science research in practical ways for practicing fundraisers.  For extensive bio see this Wikipedia entry.

For most of his 58 years as a fundraiser and organizer Roger focused on raising hell and making change by launching and building citizens movements and providing the financial fuel to drive them. Craver helped launch and build some of the household names in the nonprofit advocacy sector:  Greenpeace, Common Cause, The National Organization for Women, ACLU, World Wildlife Fund, Habitat for Humanity, The Southern Poverty Law Center and many more.

The Wall Street Journal described him as “an assassin of all things right-wing.” The American Association of Political Consultants placed him in their Hall of Fame, and the Direct Marketing Association gave him their Lifetime Achievement Award. 

Daryl: When and how did your career start in the nonprofit sector? Please tell us more about those early years?

Roger: I started in 1963 organizing capital gift campaigns for colleges and universities but quickly got caught up in the fervor of the civil rights movement…the budding environmental movement and the anti-war crusade to end the war in Viet Nam. 

Here’s some historical context that may be helpful.

Until the mid/late ‘60s virtually all liberal social change in the U.S. was funded either by labor unions, foundations or wealthy individuals.  So, if an organization or a movement had an agenda that displeased those large funders, it wasn’t going to go anywhere.  Similarly, all politics until the middle of the 60’s was funded by the parties themselves and, again, wealthy donors.  In short, there was a great deal of centralized control over the sources of money – and money is important simply because it represents freedom to set your own agenda.

So, as I got involved in the anti-war, environmental, women’s rights and civil rights movements the question became clear: ‘How do you raise a lot of money from a relatively large number of people, thereby not putting the movement or organization in jeopardy of being cut off if a major donor doesn’t like your agenda?’

To do this required using what, in those days, was the high technology called “direct mail.” So, I started an agency – Craver, Mathews, Smith —to raise large amounts of money from donors giving small gifts of $10 and $15.  The market was ripe for citizen involvement:

  • Women could not get their own credit cards when they graduated from school, unless their husband or father was willing to sign for it.
  • Women could not get health insurance for pregnancy.  Women could not get student loans and at most schools could not get scholarships.  Abortion was illegal.
  • You couldn’t swim in the Potomac River because of the danger of contracting hepatitis. 
  • There was no Clean Water Act.  There was no EPA.  No EDF, No Greenpeace. 
  • Only the Sierra Club (with 12,000 members at that time) and the Wilderness Society (with 6,000 members).
  • Eighteen-year-olds couldn’t vote, but they were being drafted to fight in the war in Vietnam.

Into the maw of social ferment, the Vietnam War, and paralysis in Washington DC, our first client was Common Cause, the first of the modern citizen action organizations that formed the template for others that would soon follow.

John Gardner, the founder of Common Cause wanted to take on welfare reform, he wanted to take on the seniority system in Congress, he wanted to take on Lyndon Johnson and the Vietnam War, but he didn’t have the resources because the foundations and the wealthy individual donors weren’t committed to that agenda.  So, we began Common Cause with John’s mandate to “raise $5 million from a lot of people in small amounts.”  How to do it was another matter.

At the outset, there wasn’t a great deal known about the business of mass, small-gift fundraising.  We didn’t have many examples, and certainly no conferences or continuing education on social change fundraising.

In fact, we didn’t even have mailing lists.  So where do you get prospective donor names?  In those days there weren’t mailing lists easily available, the internet and social media were 25 years off in the distant future. Even with the few small mailing lists that existed organizations didn’t exchange them.  So, we had to figure out how to build mailing lists from scratch.

I remember sitting in the reading room of the Library of Congress looking at newsletters and magazines and saying, ‘Well, if someone would read this, they probably would be interested in Common Cause.

I also went to an early Common Cause meeting in Connecticut and when I went out to the parking lot after the meeting I was startled by the number of Volvos.  I thought, ‘Well, you know, maybe there’s some demographic …. ‘In those days, ‘demographic’ wasn’t even a much-used term in direct response work – but it was just starting.  And, sure enough, we rented the Maryland registry of vehicles list for Volvo owners and tested it in that state’s Montgomery County and it worked well.  Then we tried it in some other states and it kept working.

Reaching prospective activists and donors was another major problem.  Back then, envelopes were addressed in two ways.  You could use addressograph machines, which were steel plates that imprinted addresses.  But there were few people trained to run them.  Or you could hire someone – usually a homeworker– to address 500 envelopes a day.  Then we’d drive around in station wagons and pick ’em up.  As you can imagine, getting a million-piece mailing out overnight was impossible.

When we started, I think non-profit mailing rates were nine-tenths of a cent per piece … maybe a cent.  I remember when they went to 1.5 cents, everyone was absolutely convinced that the industry was dead.

The next big challenge was overcoming the belief among fundraisers – not direct mail fundraisers, because there weren’t many of us, but fundraisers generally – that you shouldn’t ask people too often for money.  In fact, most fundraisers believed you probably shouldn’t ask people more than once, or maybe twice, a year.  We broke that mould almost as soon as we started using different tracks depending on donors’ interests and level of desire for frequent information.

This also marked the beginning of the process of segmentation.  Up until that time, in the very small direct mail fundraising industry – and there were only about three or four of us doing this work – most fundraisers would simply take the prospect package and send it to the house file as well.  There was not much attention paid to developing house files.  Most of the direct marketing industry made its profit from prospect mailing, by marking up printing and mailing high volumes.

We were widely criticized in the industry because we priced things differently.  We did not price our work on volume.  We did not mark-up printing.  We were looked at as something of a “black sheep” because we didn’t do it the way the rest of the industry did.  We concentrated on mailing less and trying to get more money from the donors we brought in. 

But Craver, Mathews, Smith really made its mark by developing techniques that have become standard practices in our trade.  I guess the most fundamental concept – and it’s hard to believe that it wasn’t used then, but it wasn’t – is annual renewals.  We began the first renewal program in 1970 for Common Cause.  It was based on an idea we took from magazines and publications – that a person who supported one of these organizations has an obligation to give annually to advance the cause.

Right on the heels of that came the idea that there was a difference between people who would send a few dollars to a prospect mailing and those who would repeat their giving.  And taking it one step further, within the group of repeat givers there were different classes of donors — some who would give more than others. Some who would make a monthly commitment.  Others really laughed at this.  Remember this was 25 years before the now-popular concept of ‘sustaining’ or ‘direct debit’ donors.   This was a whole new area that we pioneered and which is now called donor development.

The first monthly giving program came from the realization that even if someone couldn’t give $100 at a time – say they could only give $10 – they might be able to give more frequently.  So, we worked with Morris Dees at the Southern Poverty Law Center and created what is called today monthly giving or sustainer programs.

Using the new programs, we had developed, Craver, Mathews, Smith, fulfilled John Gardner’s mandate as we took Common Cause from zero to 250,000 members in 12 months.  It was the first time a social change organization was funded by getting a lot of people to each give a little bit of money and thereby diversify the financial base.  And that success with Common Cause marked the birth of the modern progressive advocacy organization in the U.S.

The success of Common Cause inspired a period of massive growth in the progressive movement.  And Craver, Mathews, Smith was at the center of it. One of our next clients was the National Organization for Women (NOW)NOW did not have an office and only had a few hundred members when we started with them.  Thanks to direct mail –and then telemarketing and then eventually the internet – NOW became one of the largest of the women’s rights activist groups in the world.

Then came Environmental Defense Fund, the National Abortion Rights Action League (NARAL), Greenpeace, Public Citizen, the Southern Poverty Law Center, Amnesty International and Handgun Control (now named The Brady Campaign) … all these groups were started with our help in the next several years.

There were also a group of older organizations that did not have much public support – the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), the League of Women Voters, Planned Parenthood, and the Sierra Club.  These were organizations that were 50 years old, but had only a few thousand small gift donors or members.  We took them public.

At the same time, we were building these advocacy groups, we also began our involvement in the political arena.  We helped our friend Morris Dees with the McGovern’s campaign in 1972, the first Democratic political campaign that did an end run around the National Committee.  George McGovern wasn’t going to get any support from the central authority of the Democratic Party at that time.  So, we took him into the mail.  And it turned out to be an extraordinary move because he ended up getting the nomination and having it funded by small gift donors.  That set the pattern for a lot of social and political change, because now money could be raised by going directly to the people – you didn’t have to go through a central broker to do it.

And then along came Watergate and the political fundraising process was further transformed, because there were limitations put on the way money could be raised.  The Federal Elections Campaign Reform Act of 1975, for example, created a Matching Gift Fund for small gifts to Presidential candidates.

We did the first Presidential primary campaign under that new act, for Mo Udall in 1976.  He ran in the Democratic Primary against Jimmy Carter and George Wallace and came very close to being the Democratic nominee.  After the Udall campaign, we did the fundraising for the campaigns of “President” John Andersen, “President” Ted Kennedy, “President” Patricia Schroeder … and all these campaigns produced lots of money.  Clearly however they did not produce enough votes!

Despite the success we were having with direct mail, we were also learning it has its limitations.  So, in 1971-72, we were the first firm to do telefundraising, or telemarketing.  We started with two Vietnam vets – Ken Whittaker and Dave Andelman – who would sit outside my office at Common Cause and make phone calls.  And then we brought them to Craver, Mathews, Smith, built a little phone room, and that was the start of what became Public Interest Communications (PIC).

In 1981 we did the first fundraising using video cassettes. We successfully mailed a videotape for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and showed that the use of this medium was going to become an important part of donor communications and fundraising.

But each new medium we used existed only to advance the overarching fundraising and campaign plans we developed for our clients.  So, we had to learn how to marry direct mail and telemarketing and video fundraising into a cohesive, narrowly-defined strategy.  This became the start of what today is called multi-channel marketing or integration, with one medium reinforcing the other.

Then the Internet became the latest arrow in our quiver.  In 1995, we began experimenting with the Internet long before it was popular.  We started a company called New Media Publishing in 1996-1997.  It was the first company to build websites for non-profits.  We built the first websites for the Feminist Majority, World Wildlife International and the International Committee of the Red Cross.  In a one-year period I think we built 150 websites for non-profits.  A few years later, we started CMS Interactive to integrate the Internet with the other media we use.

Today, we’ve developed and continue to improve new data analytic iproducts that will help us mine data better and help us analyze files better, among other benefits.

But these are just tools.  Far more important than the techniques and technologies we’ve developed to raise hundreds of millions of dollars for our clients, is how this money has been used to fund social change and keep citizen action moving forward.

So, the true history of our company is one of being motivated to do some good in the world … to do it using the talents of people who care about these causes and people who care about the craft.

Daryl: What was the biggest challenge you faced when you began working in the sector and started with fundraising?

Roger: As strange as it may seem today, back in the late ‘60s the prevalent “conventional wisdom” about direct response was reflected in the maxim of that day: “You can’t get milk from a cow by sending it a letter.”

Sadly, much as today, so many fundraisers stuck with conventional wisdom and weren’t terribly interested in evidence-based fundraising.  Only as some organizations succeeded did others follow.

Daryl: Who and what causes inspired you in those early years? Did you have a mentor or someone you turned to for support and advice in those days?

Roger: The civil rights movement led by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the violence and backlash against that movement, and the callous disregard of most politicians for the plight of black Americans provided a deep well of both inspiration and anger.  And the same with the Vietnam War and the stirrings of the early human rights – women, LGBT, prisoners of conscience – and human dignity movements. The ‘60s and early ‘70s were a veritable petri dish for budding movements and I wanted to be part of ‘em all.

Three mentors were central to the moves I made in those early years.  Dorothy Craver, my mother, who was a civil rights, women’s rights and all-around fighter. Here’s a post about Dorothy I wrote the night she died. The second was G. Richard Kuch, a unitarian minister by training and one of the best capital campaign strategists I’ve ever known.  Dick taught me lots of fundamentals, not least of which was the importance of being well prepared and organized.  As Dick put it: “You can believe in miracles, but you best understand that it sure helps to organize for them.”  And finally, John Gardner, the founder of Common Cause and one of America’s great intellect and reformer. He understood the central importance and need for citizen action and he summed it up best in a formula he lived by: “Duty + Responsibility = Freedom”.

Daryl: Is there one piece of advice you wish you had been given at the beginning of your career in the sector?

Roger: I wish had better understood how quickly social movements can atrophy and ossify.  I was unprepared for how quickly movements can become bureaucratic and risk averse once the founders with fire in their bellies are gone from the scene.  Very few organizations escape that life-cycle.  Mercifully, some do.   There’s no question that every organization must, from time to time, undergo a cycle of renewal.

Daryl: Who or what inspires you in your work today, and why?

The raging inequality –politically, racially, economically, and socially—are drivers in everything I do.  Although we’ve made great gains over the years, those gains are in constant threat of erosion.  Consequently, we must accept that the battles are never over. The forces of reaction don’t and won’t go away no matter what the issue or cause.

Daryl: What was it that led you to developing the popular blog, website “The Agitator” and what do you think it has achieved to date?

Roger: Ours is a trade that has grown prosperous and self-satisfied. Even for the inexperienced or just plain stupid, there is rapid advancement and substantial financial reward. Why? Because the number of available vacancies for “fundraising” positions far outstrips the available talent.

Even more worrisome in this era of rapid change is the unwillingness on the part of far too many fundraisers, CEOs and Boards to innovate, to take risks and to break new ground.

Fortunately, there is a wealth of new talent, technologies and techniques bursting on to the scene. These are the best antidotes to complacency and conventional wisdom. It’s my hope that The Agitator and its readers –together — can shine the spotlight on the trends, talent, techniques and technologies that will make us all perform better tomorrow than we do today.

Afterall, the stakes for the causes and organizations we serve are simply too high to accept anything less.

Daryl: Clearly you have strong view on the need for the fundraising community to get to grips with its data and understand its donors and their motivation to give (or not give) better. Your publications on donor retention, the DonorVoice and encouragement of the use Behavioural Science are recent are examples of this. What is it fundraisers are missing and why?

Roger: I worry a lot that too much of fundraising is “eminence-based” –relying on self-described ‘experts’, and myth.  Too little is “evidence-based” and driven by accurate, carefully reviewed data.

This I know seems a strange concern coming from a copywriter, but the data are really the most important elements of fundraising and if we’re to succeed in an increasingly complex world we simply have to move from “I think” or “I believe” to “I know.”  And “knowing” lies in the data.

Most fundraisers are woefully undereducated when it comes to data and numbers.  Consequently, there’s not nearly enough attention and education paid to understanding the values of time and money.  That’s why I wrote the book Retention Fundraising and why the participation of DonorVoice in The Agitator is so important.  Both are aimed at the number one problem in our trade:  holding on to donors.

Daryl: For you what are the most important positive trends in the nonprofit sector and in particular in fundraising? Also, where are we getting it wrong?

Roger: The gradual awakening to the importance of data along with the new predictive and analytic tools are making for a hopeful trend in appreciation of data.  In addition, the increased level of higher-quality continuing education and research focused specifically on donor motivation and behavior all bode well.

At the same time, we seem to be making very little progress on how the sector deals with fundraisers as an important and professional resource.  Too little attention to proper compensation…. too little attention to devoting funds and time to continuing education…too little attention to incentivizing and rewarding skill, experience and competence.

Daryl: What for you are the greatest challenges the sector currently faces?

Roger: Far too much focus on the short-term “meet-this-year’s-numbers” mindset.  Too little attention to understanding individual donor psychology and motivation and meeting those needs through the proper investment in providing effective donor experiences.  This is a leadership mindset challenge that has nothing to do with tactics and technology and everything to do with failure to focus sharply on donor experience and retention.

Daryl: In your opinion, has COVID-19 damaged the sector, been a positive force for change or both?

Roger: No question it has damaged the digitally unprepared…the risk averse…and the faint-hearted.  On the other hand, the pandemic has served as an accelerant for those willing and able to reach out regularly, clearly and simply to stay in touch with their donors and to make the case for continued support regardless of their mission.

Daryl: Finally, is there one piece of advice you would like to share with colleagues that are just embarking in their career as a professional fundraiser?

Roger: Plan on devoting your first five years in reading, understanding the basics of fundraising and communication and in identifying and working with one or more mentors. 

Seek out the subject matter specialists (data, creative, digital, mail, whatever) and learn from them.  The best fundraisers are like good orchestra conductors –they know the music, but also can distinguish between a great and just good violin player.