“You see, in ideological causes people give money not to win friends, but to defeat enemies . You’d like to change human nature, but you can’t—people are more strongly motivated by negative issues than positive ones. When there are no negatives or enemies, the appeal isn’t strong.”
For the past 58 years this has been the messaging North Star guiding Richard Viguerie and his direct response firm American Target Advertising. And it’s a guidance system that’s been copied and followed by virtually every successful political fundraiser on the planet.
HOWEVER, the full story of Richard Viguerie is far, far more than a piece of memorable advice for political and advocacy fundraisers.
September 23rd marks Richard’s 90th Birthday. And just as we marked Jerry Hunsinger’s 90th , we do so with today’s post to mark Richard Viguerie’s 90th.
Dubbed the “funding father” of the New Right and a pioneer of political direct mail Richard’s career is emblematic of the degree of stamina, skill, and determination required to challenge the status quo and effect change.
Richard and I have been friends for nearly 60 years. It’s a relationship few of my colleagues understand –as in “Roger, how in the world can you like a guy who stands against virtually everything you believe in.”
I get it. Afterall, just a partial list of causes and candidates Richard has launched and helped fund include Jerry Falwell and The Moral Majority, George Wallace, Jesse Helms, Gun Owners of America, the National Right to Work Commission. Practically every organization and candidate I’ve worked for 60 years to defeat. There is one ideological goal we both agree on: abolition of the death penalty.
Here’s why I admire Richard’s efforts while loathing the causes he espouses:
- Willingness to challenge the status quo. Richard was motivated to figure out how mass direct mail could be used to raise large amounts of money via small gifts as a way to end-run what in the late 1960s and in the ‘70s was a system where the political parties, labor unions and a handful of mega-donors controlled access to campaign funds on both the left and right
His development and honing of the national direct mail campaigns was considered revolutionary. It was also soon adopted by insurgent conservatives bucking the Republican establishment.
- Willingness to take risks. When Richard started no one went to school to learn political direct mail. There were none. No one thought large amounts of money could be raised by mail . “You can’t get milk from a cow by sending it a letter” was the conventional fundraising wisdom.
And there certainly were no large mailing lists, no list brokers, and none of the technology (CRMs, predictive analytics, behavioral science) we take for granted today.
To deal with the fundamental problem of few to no mailing lists, in 1965 Richard went to the House of Representatives that did maintain a list if donors who gave over $50 to Barry Goldwater’s 1964 campaign. He copied –by longhand—12,500 donors that had given to Sen. Goldwater. This was the beginning of Richard’s grassroots mailing lists that would grow into tens of millions in the years ahead.
And then he plunked down his life’s savings of $4000 and started his direct mail firm, The Richard A. Viguerie Company, now named American Target Advertising.
The result, in Richard’s words: “Thanks to direct mail, conservatives—and their candidates—were able to become an independent, vibrant force free of the fetters imposed by the Republican political hierarchy and the liberal media.”
- Willingness to commit to continuous, life-long learning. From the day 60 years ago when I met Richard until today, he’s continuously been committed to learning more and more and also sharing his knowledge. From commissioning some of the top direct marketers to consult with and share insights with him and his staff to reading everything he can lay hands on (Of course The Agitator included. 😊 )
He’s returned his knowledge to the world of both fundraising and politics with a string of books including from 1981 thru today:
The New Right: We’re Ready to Lead (1981)
The Establishment vs. the People: Is a New Populist Revolt on the Way? (1983)
America’s Right Turn: How Conservatives Used New and Alternative Media to Take Power (2004)
Conservatives Betrayed: How George W. Bush and Other Big Government Republicans Hijacked the Conservative Cause (2006)
Takeover: The 100-Year War for the Soul of the GOP and How Conservatives Can Finally Win it, (2014)
The Four Horsemen of Marketing (2021)
- Most Important . Richard proved to the conservative establishment –and more importantly to a larger conservative movement that the regular individual citizens could make a difference. That their voice and their small gifts matter. And matter a great deal.
With over $7.7 billion raised for his clients, thru 84 million donations produced by 4.9 billion letters mailed since 1965, Richard shows no sign of stopping as he years the 90-year mark:
“I started this company 58 years ago with the goal of saving America. Our work isn’t finished yet.”
Happy Birthday Richard.
P.S. For those interested in some of the characters and some of the history involved in this founding era of direct mail you might take a look at the stories and research references in the Wikipedia pages of Richard Viguerie and on the liberal side of Roger Craver.