Wellspring Archives: A Social Service Fundraising Letter (1901)

  • By Deborah Townsend
  • Posted 4/08/2012
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 10076

This People's History is based on the early records of Wellspring Family Services, a private, non-profit organization helping families and children in Seattle and King County overcome life’s challenges. Founded in 1892 as the Bureau of Associated Charities, Wellspring Family Services has operated under a succession of names.  At the time of the events described in this essay, it was called the Charity Organization Society of Seattle. This essay discusses a fundraising letter from October 1901. The organization's services have changed over the years, but have always centered on a commitment to a stronger, healthier community. These archival records offer glimpses into aspects of Seattle history not well documented elsewhere, examining societal attitudes toward poverty, need, illness, and addiction -- all of which have altered considerably since Wellspring's early days. This is one of a series entitled "Out of the Archives," and appeared in June 2011 in Wellspring's monthly internal newsletter, The Fiddlehead.  It was written by Wellspring Family Services executive assistant Deborah Townsend.

Fundraising in 1901

This glimpse into the agency’s history features a very early fundraising letter -- dated October 1901. In the days before word-processing and mail-merge, such a letter would have been produced at a printer’s shop and had to stay un-personalized. This one says “Dear Madam.” It’s safe to assume there was a “Dear Sir” version also.

The letter is very dense on the page and the language is very stuffy, from the first paragraph -- 

We desire to call your attention to the work of this society during the past year and to invite your interest and cooperation in our efforts to minister to the needy and unfortunate in this city ... 

  -- to the last:

A personal call from you at our office for inquiry or further acquaintance with our methods and enterprises will be appreciated…

This is old-fashioned business language at its most formal. A modern reader has to work fairly hard to find the main points. Once we do, though, they sound pretty familiar:

  • Requests for help are rising. (The number of cases has been more than double that of the preceding year.)
  • We use your contributions as effectively as we possibly can. (...prudent management which we trust you will endorse.)
  • We have launched new programs to meet identified needs. (The Day Nursery, which for six months has been open for the care of little ones whose parents have to leave them during working hours ... ).
  • We offer in-depth service, and that takes time and skilled staff -- and funding. (There is imperative need of help in the visitation and service of poor families in their homes. The poverty and improvidence found require almost the entire time of some one to study and work with the needy to bring them to some measure of independence and self-support. It is proposed to engage an experienced woman to assist in this most important branch of our work. Not less than $4000 is needed to sustain these efforts for the year.)

The fourth paragraph is a swamp of words but when we wade in we read a very typical kind of request:

Again we commend this society and its social service, which has no sectarian bias and only the broadest philanthropic motive, to your favorable notice and beg that you will give us such assistance as may be in your power and speak to your business and professional friends in behalf of the work that we may secure a liberal support and be enabled to give to the needy just the aid which is required.

That is to say:  We need your help. Please give as much as you can. Please tell your friends and associates about the work we do.

The fifth (and second-to-last) paragraph makes a very different kind of request:

Please do not give alms at the door or anywhere to those whom you do not personally know to be unable to help themselves. Seeming kindness when the effect is not carefully considered, very often undermines a proper feeling of independence and responsibility for doing the most that can be done for self-support. Please use the enclosed tickets to direct applicants to our office ... that we may investigate them, and rest assured that they will receive help if needy and worthy.

This was The Charity Organization Society, after all, trying to regularize assistance (for the “worthy poor,” we notice) throughout the city.

These days we are not quite so heavy-handed in our community relations pieces, but the tension still exists in our community around giving handouts to panhandlers. It’s also interesting to see that the approach of giving out referral cards instead of cash goes all the way back to 1901.

One last point of interest:  This particular copy of the fundraising letter was never sent and instead found its way into someone’s “second-side-useable” stack:  the back of the letter carries an annotated carbon-copy draft for some sections of the agency’s bylaws. So we have solid proof that our predecessors were very thrifty!

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