Have you ever heard the story of how fundraising helped to build the Statue of Liberty?

It’s a tale that’s roughly 150 years old – but it still carries some great learnings that we can apply to direct mail fundraising today.

There are two sides to this fundraising story: the side of the French and the side of the Americans. The people of France were to fundraise for the statue proper, and the Americans were tasked with fundraising for the pedestal upon which the statue stands.

The French made fundraising look easy, raising their goal of 2 million dollars (in today’s standards) in 1880, after just 5 years of fundraising.

In contrast, by 1882, the Americans were still having a really hard time coming up with the funds they needed. They had tried just about everything and were still short of their goal.

That’s when Joseph Pulitzer, the owner of The World, a New York City daily newspaper, stepped in to help. He promised to print the name of each donor in his newspaper, no matter how small the donation.

And remarkably, his plan worked. Small donations from approximately 125K people were received totalling roughly 2 million (in today’s dollars) and the Statue of Liberty project was saved.

So, what direct mail fundraising lessons can we take away from this story?

#1: Small donations are valuable

Back in the day, the Americans raised money in a variety of ways, through the government, events, major donors, and more. But when various governments and major donors decided not to give, it was the numerous small donations from the everyday donor that helped the Americans reach their goal.

Similarly, during the pandemic, many gifts from major donors and events were cancelled and it was the loyal individual donors that kept organizations going.

#2: Donor stewardship is effective – and so are donor testimonials

Americans were drawn to making a donation once they saw Pulitzer’s ad in the paper and learned that their name would be featured. By seeing friends, family and colleagues give to this cause, new individuals were encouraged to give.

A century and a half later, donor stewardship remains imperative. However, donor stewardship today should be more intentional than simply slapping someone’s name in a newspaper.
You can find my 3 practical stewardship tips here.

Another takeaway here is that using donor testimonials can be particularly effective in encouraging others to give.

#3: The power of “every penny counts” messaging

The newspaper article that called on Americans to make a gift insinuated that every gift, no matter the size, would make a difference.

This type of “every penny counts” messaging is still effective today. It motivates people to give who otherwise may not have given. While this type of messaging might not be ideal for donors who you are trying to upgrade, it can be effective in acquiring new donors or reactivating lapsed ones.