A Real Tear
August 31, 2020 § Leave a comment
It started as a joke.
No, that’s not right. It started as a regular piece of work, the kind of project we discussed every week at our Monday status meeting.
At that time, and I’m talking about the early ‘nineties now, there were three of us in the Donor Development Department of Save the Kids, or S the K, as it was written on our pink and blue headed paper. Jed Norris was our boss. If you’re in the business, you might have heard his name. A total legend. He was real direct marketeer, worked for Sloss, McNally, Rice, who, back in the day, handled all the direct mail for the big catalogues and insurance companies. Then he spent time with, of all people, the Conservative Party, which the top brass at S the K considered enough of a charitable experience to give him full reign over our direct marketing work. Personally, I thought it made him deeply suspect but, over drinks in the pub one night, he claimed his time at Smith Square wasn’t a political decision, just a career move. Bollocks, I said. They’re a bunch of money grabbing leeches and you worked for them. Shame on you. He didn’t care though. Jed was part of a trend, a migration of people from the corporate sector to the charitable one, nobly bringing their finely honed business skills to the not for profit world. Apparently, so these guys argued, charities needed to operate more like companies. They needed to be more professional, whatever the hell that meant. The fact that most charities were picking up the shit created by the failure of the free market to – what was the phrase? – trickle down – was by the by.
I digress. The S the K board loved him, maybe because he wore a suit and played golf, or more likely, because half the board were donors to the Tory Party and just got over-excited when they saw his CV.
Martin and I did all the real work. Martin in particular was a star. To be honest, I was a little in love with him. Just a little. He looked like a young Martin Sheen only taller. When we’d been in Birmingham the year before at the National Fundraising Convention, we’d almost slept together. Well, there was sod all else to do in that stinking Metropolitan Hotel, stuck out in the middle of God knows where, drinks priced through the roof and only a thousand other fundraisers for company. I was certainly game, and so was Martin until, mid snog, he suddenly had an attack of conscience. It wouldn’t be fair on either of us, he’d said, being that he already had a girlfriend. I could have argued the point but I was too drunk and so the moment passed. Probably for the best.
Martin and I were a pretty good work team though. I only needed to glance at him in a meeting and I could tell what was going through his mind, what he made of the work being presented or the state of our donor profile. And we both shared a healthy contempt for Jed and his corporate ideas, even if much of what he said actually made sense. It was our job to obstruct, like Old Labour or the Unions, while Jed was more like Thatcher, that’s to say, he got his way regardless.
To pause for a moment, and for our younger readers, what I’m talking about here is good old fashioned direct mail, sent through the post, envelopes plopping onto doorsteps along with newspapers, bills and a postcard from your mum. No social media or emails. No donating by bank transfer or even credit card. Just a letter from us, pleading our case, convincing you to take a moment of your valuable time to write back, with a cheque and your good wishes. That was fundraising in those days, letters and the Royal Mail.
Before the era of Jed, we’d had a pretty standard approach to our donors, mailing them four times a year, plus the Christmas catalogue. Everyone got the same thing, no matter how much they gave. Jed put a stop to all that. He said that we should be segmenting our lists according to donation levels and mailing people at least ten times a year. That’s too much, we argued. Our donors will protest. They’ll think it’s a waste of our – their – money. No, Jed had countered. They’ll think they don’t like it and some will even complain but, you see, it will bring in more money. And, fair play to him, it did.
The only problem with all this (assuming that we never considered pissing off a large percentage of our donors to be a problem, and apparently we didn’t) was that we needed to keep coming up with new and urgent subjects for our increasing output of appeals. That was a challenge, and why we needed the help of Janice and Carla from Rolf & Mayer
“I’ve brought in a few samples of mail-shots we’ve been working on for other charities,” Janice had said at that Monday meeting, spreading many branded, window envelopes over the table. “Obviously, they are not competing organisations to S the K, but they may give us a few jumping off points.”
“How about another case study?” I said. “We still haven’t used Emma, and I think she’s pretty good.”
Emma wasn’t a real person. She was what our communications team called, ‘a composite.’ Her story was cobbled together from the real life tales our project workers heard on a daily basis: sexual abuse, poverty, a life on the streets. The photograph that accompanied the case study wasn’t genuine either. The soft-eyed teenager in the picture, her face long with sorrow, she was a model made up to look like a victim. We had no choice. It would not have been appropriate to show any of the real children we helped. Plus, many of them, particularly the teenagers, were far too unappealing, wearing the marks of deprivation on their faces, bad skin, poor teeth or, worse, defiance.
“We’ve done case histories, over and over,” said Jed. “We need something new.”
Carla reached for a pack with her long, sharply manicured hands and briskly fanned its contents over the meeting room table. “We did this recently for Dignity in Age Overseas,” she said, tapping an envelope with a plum coloured finger nail. “It contains this piece of plastic, which, when you look through it, gives you an idea of what it’s like to have cataracts. Simple, but effective and the ask was for five pounds to fund a cataract operation, five pounds for the gift of sight.”
We all took turns to hold the plastic square to our eyes and marvel at how little we could see.
“That’s really excellent,” said Jed, peering like a pirate. “D’you have the response rate for this?” he asked, removing the plastic from his eye.
Janice pushed a sheet of figures around the table. “And here’s the same data when we used it with cold donors.” Cold donors are people who have never supported the charity in question before. Usually, we’d acquire their names by swapping with other, similar charities, our donors’ details for theirs. This was before all the data protection stuff we have today, before the prevalence of the little, no I don’t want to receive information from other organisations, tick box which, I might add, has almost brought the great industry of direct marketing to its knees.
Jed studied the figures, rubbing his chin as he took in the data. “This is good stuff,” he said. “Really, impressive.” He looked around the table. “So, come on team, what do we have that could work in the same way?”
Janice and Carla glanced at each other. They’d come armed with an idea. Janice produced a new envelope and unpacked it, placing a mailing piece and a yellow wax crayon on the table.
“Crayons,” she said. “We thought about crayons.”
Martin shifted in his chair. “I’m not sure I get it,” he said.
Janice grinned. “We’d put a crayon in each pack, together with a drawing from a child, a picture illustrating their plight. You know, the kind of thing a psychologist might get a child to do. ‘Can you draw how you see your disreputable family?’ or ‘Can you draw how it feels when you are left on your own?’ The picture we’ll actually include will be bleak, dark and angry, very disturbing. Done by one of our creatives. Then the recipient will find the crayon, which will be nice and bright, yellow or orange, and the message will be, ‘Change the colour of a child’s life by making a donation.’” Janice sat back in her chair and folded her arms. She was deeply satisfied.
“It sounds a bit elaborate,” I said. “I’m just not sure the donors will get it.”
Jed nodded. “I agree. It’s ok, but it’s not, ‘This is how it looks when you can’t see.’”
Carla protested. “We think…”
“No,” said Jed. “We need something sharper. Come on, people. What symbolises suffering children? What says ‘abuse’ to our donors?”
Martin and I exchanged a look.
“Did you have a particular kind of abuse in mind?” I asked.
“Something that works,” he said.
We sat in silence for a moment. “It’s not easy to package ‘neglect’,” said Martin eventually.
“No, ok,” said Jed. “But what about physical…”
“Or sexual?” I added. “The mind boggles.”
Janice and Carla exchanged an unhappy glance. They were still sore about their crayon proposal.
“No, but you have something,” said Jed.
I cleared my throat. “Well, what about tears,” I said.
Given all that happened afterwards, over the years, I’ve thought about that moment a good deal and, you know, to this day, I couldn’t say if I was joking or not. The words just popped out and before we knew it, there was no other idea.
“Tears?” Janice didn’t look any happier.
“The tears of a child,” I went on, still smiling.
Martin started to laugh again.
Jed held up his hand. “No, wait. I think you have something.”
Carla and Janice shot each other a look.
“What could be more moving?,” said Jed. “Who could not put their hand in their pocket when faced with the tears of a child? It’s brilliant.” There was an eerie look in Jed’s eyes. I think it unnerved the girls from Rolf & Mayer. The whole tear idea had made their crayon plan look hopelessly innocent.
Martin cleared his throat. “Let’s just run with this for a minute. How would we collect these ‘tears’?”
“We could pinch children until they cry,” I said. “I’m sure if we offered enough money, parents would be volunteering kids left, right and centre. I can name you half dozen members of staff right in this building who’d go for it.”
Carla looked concerned. “But wouldn’t that be abuse in itself? I’m really not sure donors would like that.”
Jed rolled his eyes, although it wasn’t clear whether this was in exasperation at Carla’s failure to get the joke, or in frustration at the prospect of donors and their pesky objections to children being repeatedly pinched.
“Obviously, we can’t hurt real children. That would be totally unacceptable,” he said, eventually.
“We are still joking, aren’t we?” asked Janice. She looked at each of us, a degree of panic in her expression. “Tell me, no one is seriously considering this idea.”
“I’ve said already,” said Jed. “Collecting real tears is not possible.”
“No, I mean…”
“But,” went on Jed, railroading through Janice’s objections, “why couldn’t we used salt water.”
“A composite tear,” Martin said.
“Right. A couple of drops of salt water in a small plastic bag?”
“No,” I said. “A plastic bag wouldn’t work. It would just smear along the sides. It won’t look like a tear. But what about one of those little plastic vials, the kind of thing used for perfume samples?”
“Excellent,” said Jed.
Martin sucked in his breath as if weighing up the pros and cons. “What would the unit cost be on something like that?” he asked, turning to the agency ladies. They looked nervously one to the other.
“I’ve really have no idea,” said Janice.
“Well, more or less than the plastic cataract thing?
“Emm, well, I suppose the vial would be the expensive item. It would need to be airtight to stop the tears, sorry, the salt water, leaking out. And then there’d be the usual art work, copywriting costs.”
“It would be light though,” I added, thinking of mailing prices.
“We might need some new photography,” said Martin. “A picture of a super, ultra-sad child. Followed by shots of the same child now super, ultra-happy as result of S the K’s wonderful and unique help.”
“Never use the word ‘unique’,” I said. “Donors don’t like it. They know perfectly well that very little is truly ‘unique’.”
“I think this bloody well might be,” said Jed, a note of triumph in his voice. “Can you imagine what kind of coverage this will get, not just in the charity press but all over?” He must have sensed hesitancy from Rolf & Mayer. “Oh come on. Janice, Carla, you’re professionals. You know that what we’re about is innovation, eh?” He picked up the piece of cataract plastic, gave it a contemptuous look and threw it across the table. “You guys want to make your name? You’ll need to be a whole lot more daring than fuzzy bits of plastic. Let’s face it, blind old people just don’t kick ass in the same way as sad kids.”
Thinking back, at that point Rolf and Mayer should have gathered together all their packs and, in their high heels and suits, they should all walked out then and there. Or at least raised more of an objection. They were the agency, after all, there to give advice. But those were different times, governed by a different set of rules. Or so it seems now.
To my credit, I did say, “And, of course, this appeal will raise some serious and much needed funds for neglected and abused children,” and everyone in the room nodded gravely, although I suspect we were all really thinking about next year’s Direct Marketing Awards and the coveted silver envelope for best charity-agency partnership.
“Will you get this passed the Senior Management Team?” Martin asked.
Jed waved this away. “You leave them to me. Anyway, it’s an operational decision, and I’m head of this particular operation.” He didn’t need to say anymore. If we guessed that he wouldn’t apprise them of the plan until it was a fate acompli, no one said anything.
There was a moment of conspiratorial silence. I suspect we shared something of the same sick thrill experienced by governments on the eve of war. If just one of us in that room had said no then we would never have gone ahead. I mean, yes, we were all direct marketeers, but we were still people, and, let’s face it, three of us were professionally charitable.
But we didn’t. Instead, we doled out jobs, worked out a mailing schedule and a donor breakdown and even did an initial income forecast. When we left the meeting, it was with thoughts of sourcing tiny plastic vials and drafting appropriate copy.
The funny thing is that when the packs went out I was genuinely proud of them, and, to begin with, there were hardly any complaints. The day the mailing dropped, Martin and I went for a drink to celebrate; three bottles of Californian Chardonnay later we ended up back at my flat and hey ho, it was Birmingham all over again, but this time Martin didn’t mention his girlfriend. Maybe that was symbolic of how far we’d fallen. I don’t know. At the time, it just seemed like we were having fun.
That didn’t last. By the following Monday, the press had got hold of a pack. “Charity Exploits Weeping Kids,” was the headline in one tabloid, which was just lazy journalism. No kids were harmed in the making of this appeal, we responded, but that went by the by. Donors were outraged, as were our celebrity patrons, who resigned in droves, and, more embarrassingly, so were our frontline project workers, who popped up all over the show to decry modern fundraising techniques. That made me cross. They never complained when the money was rolling in, but the minute there was a whiff of a reporter and a chance to get their picture in paper, they were all up on their moral high horses.
Jed had to resign, of course, although he found a new job pretty quickly. While people appeared to disapprove, those in the business admired his balls. He went to work for some finance company. S the K sacked Rolf & Meyer, while Martin and I kept our heads down and hoped for the best, although, in the end, we both moved on too. I heard that Martin married his girlfriend and moved to Birmingham.
I’m no longer in direct marketing, but not because I regret the Real Tear pack. On the contrary, I think it was a landmark piece of work, and not just because of the fundraising legislation it prompted. To be honest, everything I worked on after that seemed horribly dull in comparison. The new agency did something with free pens in the next mailing but really, who wants a cheap biro? It doesn’t get the message across. Maybe people need to be more honest. At the end of the day, it is about children’s tears, and if you can’t face that truth then you’ve no business working for a charity.