As we pause this week to contemplate our fathers, I cannot help but think of my father’s mail.
After my Dad died a few years ago, I discovered that he had been leading a secret life that my mother and I didn’t know much about. Dad was, in the words of the trade, a “small donor.”
In the days and months after his passing, I was astounded at the amount of political junk mail that flowed in. It seemed that every Republican candidate in America sensed that my father was easy pickings.
In reality, it was a little embarrassing. I felt ashamed that my industry — sometimes to pay me, I suppose — was attempting to bilk a kindly old man in the twilight of his time on this earth.
Looking at the stack of solicitations on my parents’ kitchen table, I couldn’t help but remember what a direct-mail consultant had once told me about small donors. He said that campaigns can lose money on prospect mailings as long as they snag a decent number of $25 donors. Those small donors can be converted into repeat contributors, making tiny donations every month if they are asked. The consultant said that it adds up over time, justifying the cost of locating a softie like my dad.
My dad’s taste in fundraising mail highlighted his solidly held value system. He seemed to have eschewed the mailings that promised to make him an insider, ignoring the sort of “Knights of the Round Table” appeal that a few national committees seem to specialize in. Instead he had a penchant for good copy, appeals that were reasoned and rational, even if a little hokey. He kept a few newsletters from campaigns that he contributed to but never any of the silly pictures or faux-insider items that so many solicitations use.
The worst part of cleaning up my father’s affairs after his death was shutting off the phone solicitations to the now-deceased small donor. My mother was struggling to adjust to life alone after more than a half-century of happy marriage, and then the phone would ring. I was there a few times when this occurred.
Typically, a polite, sweet-sounding young woman would ask to speak with Mr. Hill. We would tell them he was deceased. They were invariably gracious and respectful, expressing sorrow at his passing, but somehow the word never got back to the home office and the calls kept coming.
It was an unwelcome regular reminder that Dad was gone. My mother asked whether I, the Republican consultant, couldn’t just shut off the calls. I tried.
I don’t begrudge my father’s small-donor life. It brought some enjoyment to his retirement years. I think he approached political contributions like he invested. He’d read about a stock, buy a few shares and then follow it to pass the days. Sometimes his direct-mail and stock portfolio overlapped. I discovered in his investments that he had purchased stocks or mutual funds that involved two of my candidate clients. (I can hear him telling the barber that his consultant son had given him a stock tip.)
As we age, all of us notice that we have taken on characteristics or qualities of our fathers. That seems to be happening to me in the realm of direct mail. I don’t make many contributions to candidates, mostly just to friends seeking office. But the list gods cannot discern friendship donations. It all looks the same on a computer printout, I suppose.
So this cycle I have been receiving mail and phone calls from candidates everywhere. With two college-age kids, I can’t donate often these days, but in a few years I may join the ranks of the small donor. My dad would nod approval.
Hill is director of Hill Research Consultants, a Texas-based firm that has polled for GOP candidates and causes since 1988.