50 Leaders of the Evangelical Generation: #40 Russ Reid. Fundraiser

[I am working on a project that may become a book on the most influential evangelicals leaders of our generation, since 1976, and the impact they’ve had on the church and their times. I will introduce them briefly on this blog from time to time. Who should be on this list?]

#40.Russ Reid. Fundraiser b.1935

Follow the money. When you do in the evangelical sector over the last generation, following the money that it took to launch and support many of the great ministries and missions and projects of the time, the trail would take you to and through the offices of a fast-talking Californian with a sparkle in his eyes and many new ideas for funding mission: Russ Reid.

For many today, Russ Reid is the name of the firm, with little notice that it is also the man who launched the firm and remains a fascinating study. Russ Reid is the founder and leader of the first of the large fund development agencies that became partners with Christian organizations, using direct response fundraising to find support for their work. Russ said: “There is no shortage of money, only a shortage of well-articulated causes.”

Russ Reid has helped articulate a lot of causes.

Originally he had trained for the ministry, but finally realized that he was more of a marketing guy than a pastor. In the late 1950s he went to work for Word Publishing in Waco, Texas. There he learned all about direct response through book-of-the-month clubs and by marketing books through direct mail. Along the way, he noticed some wonderful organizations doing great work to help others, but they didn’t know how to tell their own stories, or how to raise money.

Russ had a vision—to start a company that would help nonprofit organizations make a bigger difference in the world. He founded the Russ Reid Company in 1964, and Word Publishing became his first client. Later he moved the company to Park Ridge, Illinois, and worked with small ministries as he got up and running. In 1966, Russ was able to get a project from World Vision. At that time, World Vision was conducting projects around the world on an annual budget of about $5 million (today they’re approaching $2 billion in annual revenue).

In 1972, as his work with World Vision increased, Russ decided to move from Chicago to Arcadia, California, near World Vision’s Monrovia headquarters. At that time, the way World Vision acquired sponsors was by speaking at churches and showing a film about the plight of children in the developing world.

Russ had an idea. He approached World Vision EVP Ted Engstrom and proposed that they film Art Linkletter traveling around the world and meeting these children in need, bring that film back, and instead of going from church to church, put it on television.

Ted Engstrom got approval from the board for this expensive, risky project, and reportedly said to Russ afterwards, “What will we do if this doesn’t work?” Russ laughed and said, “Ted, we’ll have the most expensive church film in history.”

It did work, beyond expectations, and the World Vision television specials were born–the first major television fundraising of their kind. Many of followed, and Russ Reid has been involved with many of them.

Over the last 40 years, Russ Reid’s little company has grown from one guy with an idea about helping people who help people, to what is now the largest agency in the world exclusively devoted to helping nonprofit organizations grow.

Russ says: “Giving life and health and hope to children in poverty, to the homeless, to people with cancer is significant work. It’s life-changing work. For me, it’s part of what gets me up in the morning, excited about coming to work.”

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About Jim Jewell

I am a writer and consultant on faith and public life, active for many years in management and communications in the evangelical community. I now work as the director of the nonprofit practice at The Valcort Group (www.valcort.com). Everything on this blog, however, is my personal opinion and is not read or approved before it is posted. Opinions, conclusions and other information expressed here do not necessarily reflect the views of Valcort.
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