For survival, stem cell agency hunts for ‘wet signatures’

Robert Klein, who spent six years as the state stem cell agency's chairman, addresses issues related to the November ballot initiative. (Photo: David Jensen, California Stem Cell Report)

The folks who are trying to save the $3 billion California stem cell agency from financial extinction are using a well-worn technique that goes back to ancient Egypt, at least by some accounts.

It is expensive, depending on what you are peddling, and generates a return as low as 1 percent. It is direct mail, but with a significant twist. It involves the collection of “wet signatures” and the signing of documents that must be produced in a fussy, legal fashion.

The process requires a bit more commitment from voters than, say, returning a pitch from the Readers Digest Sweepstakes. And it is likely that the effort is the first time that anyone has made a major push — both by direct mail and online — to collect tens of thousands of voters’ signatures to qualify an initiative for the ballot in California.

It is a life or death matter for the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM), otherwise known as the state stem cell agency. CIRM is running out of money and will begin to close its doors next fall unless it receives a life-preserving jolt of cash. The proposed ballot initiative would do that nicely with an injection of $5.5 billion.

Ordinarily, qualifying a measure for the ballot in the Golden State is simple. All you need is money. The cash goes to firms that hire hundreds of people to solicit hundreds of thousands of signatures in public places. The coronavirus put a stop to that sort of public behavior back in March.

The result was a big crimp in the plans of the “Californians for Stem Cell Research, Treatment and Cures,” as the campaign has dubbed itself.

It announced that 35,000 more signatures were needed. “Time is running out,” the campaign warned on its web site.

On hand were 915,000 signatures. Qualifying the measure for the ballot requires only 623,212 signatures of registered voters. But disqualification rates for ballot initiative signatures can run as high as 50 percent, and the campaign wanted a bigger cushion.

It fired up what it described as an “unprecedented,” effort online, but one that is a tad complicated.

First, someone interested in finding a stem cell petition to sign must know that they can find one on the Internet, which is a big ask. Then, if their search leads them to the proper web site, they will encounter lengthy instructions.

The process is not simple. The campaign’s web site mentions “wet signatures,” ones that are signed in ink. Then there is the need to print out the 16 pages of the petition from the web site and the need to complete the “circulator declaration.” A seven-minute, “sign-at-home training”  video was posted by the campaign to guide wandering supporters along the signature trail. 

About April 13, the campaign quietly boosted its cyberspace pitch with direct mail, presumably targeting households likely to be sympathetic to spending $5.5 billion for stem cell research via the ballot initiative.

A packet of the direct mail material surfaced recently in Santa Barbara.  The California Stem Cell Report subsequently asked the campaign about the direct mail effort, but it has remained all but mum, with the exception of providing a rough start date for direct mail effort. Unanswered are such questions as how many packets were mailed, their return rate and cost and whether there is a precedent for mailing out petitions in this fashion?

The campaign’s direct mail effort is significant and holds some promise. But the  tasks for recipients take time and pose some barriers that can lower a response rate.

The question is whether the unusual effort will pay off?  To answer that, let’s assume that the direct mail pitch generates a 2% return with an average of one signature per household, which may be generous based on what is known about direct mail efforts. Let’s assume that the campaign would like to gather by direct mail only a portion of the 35,000 signature shortfall, for example, about 15,000. That would mean producing and mailing 750,000 packets to collect 15,000 signatures, which, of course, also need to come from verified registered voters.

Costs are not insignificant. Aside from postage, one web site estimates that production costs for business direct mail range from 30 cents to $10 each, depending on size and complexity.

Direct mail does work. That’s why it has been around in a significant way for many decades and fills your mailbox every day. It is not clear who in the campaign came up with its direct mail plan. But the campaign is very much the creature of Robert Klein, a Palo Alto real estate developer who also directed the 2004 campaign that led to the creation of the stem cell agency. He spent more than six years as its first chairman and is the chairman of his own stem cell advocacy group, Americans for Cures, which has offices in Klein’s Palo Alto building.

Klein is acutely aware that next November could mean the extinction of an enterprise he has devoted years to. Few good alternatives exist beyond passage of this year’s initiative. It’s this year or never, he basically told CIRM directors in 2017.  No one, however, could have predicted the coronavirus crisis that halted normal signature gathering. So today Klein is emulating the direct marketing examples of a landowner in ancient Egypt and of a man named Aaron Montgomery Ward who launched his first one-page catalog in 1872 and who can be considered the father of modern direct mail.

California will soon know whether Klein has been as successful as Mr. Ward, whose catalog became imbued in American culture as the nation’s “Wish Book.”

Editor’s Note: David Jensen is a retired newsman who has followed the affairs of the $3 billion California stem cell agency since 2005 via his blog, the California Stem Cell Report. He has published more than 4,000 items on California stem cell matters.


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