If bullshit were the new cure for cancer then the direct marketing staff and consultants of the American Cancer Society should win the Nobel Prize in Medicine hands down.

That was pretty much the conclusion of dozens of Agitator readers who phoned, emailed and texted following their attendance at last week’s presentation at the DMANF New York Nonprofit Conference .   The presentation—titled Direct Mail Acquisition—Engine for Growth or Treadmill for Survival? — was billed as offering perspectives on the impact and findings of the American Cancer Society’s (ACS) 17-month hiatus from acquisition direct mail.

Many hoped it would be a ‘tell all’ providing real insight into what really led to the decision to halt the mail and, in turn, what were the consequences of that decision?

Clearly attendees” were disappointed. The reviews were anything but kind.

American Cancer Society“No one bought their crap”…”Rather than admit it [the hiatus] was a mistake they presented an hour of bullshit.”… “Insulting”…”embarrassing”…”we have now gotten a B+ in Direct Response 101” … “presumptuous”…”vacuous”…”I have approximately 1 scintilla of the direct response knowledge of most folks in that audience and it was too elementary to be of even any interest to me.”

I want to come back to the possible reasons for these reactions in a moment. But first, here, from the account in The NonProfit Times  is a summary of the facts outlined in the presentation.

  • ACS suspended its direct mail acquisition program in January 2013 as part of a three-year transformation designed to consolidate the nearly billion-dollar organization from 13 separate divisions into one single 501 ( c ) ( 3 ) entity. Direct mail acquisition was re-launched in June 2014.
  • New donors declined by 11 percent and new donor revenue dropped by $11.3 million in the first year this halt in the acquisition program.
  • The ACS estimates this hiatus will have a $29.5 impact on income over 5 years.
  • It quickly became apparent that the decision would adversely impact other programs over time. ACS’ Relay for Life raised $25 million less than the previous year.
  • Direct mail donors give more then $51 million in planned gifts. The negative impact on that is yet to be determined.
  • The decision also impacted organizations beyond ACS because of huge qualities of ACS names that were historically exchanged or placed into data cooperatives.

As I re-read the reporting in Nonprofit Times and review my notes from Agitator readers who reached me I’m struck by the rather simplistic and obvious findings reported.

  • Silos are bad. They hamper integration.
  • Silos do not serve the donor audience well.
  • Multi-channel integration is good. It enhances value.
  • The expectation that digital would fill the new donor pipeline as quickly as mail didn’t pan out. [“Takes longer to break even and is not very cost effective.”]
  • “It’s tempting to look at things through a one-year lens but the runway for direct mail acquisition is much longer than that. For every $1 we invest in direct mail acquisition, we bring in $7 over the course of three years.”
  • “We need acquisition to feed the core audience or else the entire program loses profitability through the course of the natural customer cycle.

Isn’t all this painfully obvious?

I’m sure such plainly elementary practices have been known for at least the past decade at the ACS as they have been at hundreds of other organizations? If known why were they ignored? Too busy focusing on the old burn and churn tactics which produce lots of profit for vendors but not much value for the organization? A CFO asleep a the switch? An innumerate or uncaring board? A weak or arrogant C suite?

Those are questions the audience really wanted asked –and deserved to have answered. After all it was ACS itself that upon announcing the withdrawal from acquisition mail in 2013 promised a full explanation. That’s why The Agitator initially cheered the decision ( See The Courage to Change )

As we noted at the time:

“The list brokers were all aflutter … dm agencies moaned … lots of ‘tsks, tsks’ from the old guard. Change ain’t popular, especially when wallets are involved.

“Of course it would be easy to dismiss all this as another flutter (well, in this case a ‘tornado’) set off by some powerful board member proclaiming, “My husband doesn’t like all this junk mail”… or some high-placed bean counter looking only at cost of fundraising.

“BUT … that’s not the case at all. Not only did ACS go through a thorough and deliberate process, but they’ve done our sector an immense and amazing favor: they’re going to let us watch what happens.”

For whatever reason they’ve failed so far to deliver on their promise. Perhaps expectations for this presentation were set too high? Perhaps it was just mis-handled. Perhaps there was some internal gag imposed –a sure sign of dysfunction and fearful, weak leadership in any organization.

Direct mail is a miniscule (less than 6%) part of ACS revenue but the organization’s failure to deliver on this promise is a major trust-buster in our community. And a disgrace for an organization in which millions and millions who don’t give a damn about direct mail place their trust.

Let’s hope they make amends.

What do hope they’ll do?  What questions would you like answered?