Politics to Philanthropy: How a personal belief in civil liberties launched Steve Thomas’ successful fundraising career.
From a young age, Steve Thomas had a taste for politics. He joined the Canadian Civil Liberties Association as a high school student in Toronto, and briefly worked for Trudeau in the lead-up to his 1968 election. But it was the invocation of the War Measures Act in October 1970 that convinced Steve he had to do something more.
Upon return to Canada after teaching at a school in the Netherlands in 1971, the new university graduate sought affiliation with the New Democrat Party. “Tommy Douglas’ opposition to the use of the War Measures Act impressed me,” he says.
Steve joined the Ontario party and his wife took a job as a research assistant to Stephen Lewis. It wasn’t long before the NDP became a huge part of their lives. Soon, the couple was regularly hosting Lewis, who later became the party’s leader, in their living room and spending their evenings talking politics.
Steve’s commitment to the NDP introduced him to fundraising. When the party had a campaign, he offered to knock on doors. This experience proved enough to secure a job at Oxfam—he became the charity’s director of development for Ontario.
An Oxfam board member first brought direct mail to Steve’s attention. “They sent me to a course in Illinois, where I learned the basics,” he says. “Of the large group taking the course, I was the only participant from a charity.” That’s where Steve earned his “Bachelor of Direct Mail.”
Oxfam gave Steve the freedom to experiment with direct mail, and it was where he created one of Canada’s first direct mail programs for a charity. As a volunteer, he used this experience to launch the Ontario NDP’s first direct mail campaign in 1975. It proved a roaring success. By 1977, he had become the party’s first professional fundraiser.
“The party’s council gave me a chance,” he says. “They told me I had to raise 150% of my salary within the first six months. I did it.”
Within a year, Steve had launched a successful direct mail campaign for the NDP’s federal party, too. On the advice of his boss, Robin Sears, he opened a consultancy in 1980. Oxfam became a client, and Steve also landed Amnesty International. “Amnesty was our star client in the 1980s,” he says. “We took their list from less than 1,000 people to somewhere near 90,000. For them, direct mail was inordinately successful.”
By 1985, Steve was running Canada’s first direct mail agency and enjoying very little competition. He acquired more clients, such as the CNIB and March of Dimes, by offering direct mail trials that provided significant return on investment.
Nearly 35 years later, that agency is still going strong. “Direct mail is still an important part of our business. It’s more resilient than many people think,” he says. “That being said, we do offer many other services. I didn’t want us to be the best buggy manufacturer in Detroit in 1920. Digital, branding, data—these things play a big role these days.”
One thing hasn’t changed, and that is the company’s commitment to serving non-profits. “Everybody who works here has a sense of mission,” he says. “They want to change the world.”