Energetic book distribution, Back to Godhead subscription, a good mail-order and personal correspondence service were, at one time, a very important part of ISKCON’s outreach.
There’s been a lot of Srila Prabhupada’s books sold in our little country over the years – perhaps some 100 million pieces of literature over almost 40 years. No exagerration. During that time we’ve come up with various methods of staging our follow-up to book distribution so that people who wanted to know more could gradually get to know the devotees, learn more of our philosophy and life, and find a place for themselves in the wonderful Hare Krishna movement.
1985 was a good year. It was the year I bought my first computer, for the now astronomical sum of £3,500. Ouch! But we put it to good use, and had a devotee write a database for us. That was before I knew what a database was. We had a simple formula for processing all the names and addresses coming from street sankirtan which these days will sound blindingly obvious, but back then it was looked upon as brilliant, a stroke of pure genius direct from God.
The thing is, in 1985 we still imagined that people came to Krishna consciousness just like we did. They got a book, read it from cover to cover in a week, then thought to themselves: “This is just the most wonderful thing I have ever read in my life. I just have to join their movement, give my life completely, and in this one life go back to home, back to Godhead.”
Unfortunately, most people are not quite as interested as that, and are actually moving in spiritual slow-motion compared to the bright souls who gave them their first book about Krishna. So whilst a few people will always come to Krishna with the slightest whisper of sacred sound, others take quite some time,many more take even longer, and for all of them we have to be prepared to allow them that time.
Back in 1985 our time, like today, was limited. We couldn’t possibly talk to every person who we’d sold a book to – we were far too busy selling more books. But we knew that we’d ultimately have to actually talk to people to get them to come and stay in the temple for a while – otherwise we’d have a lot of people with a lot of books, but no new devotees.
So we wanted to be able to distinguish those who were most interested in taking up Krishna consciousness from those who needed much more time to think about it. We also wanted to help the most enthusiastic people to move forward in their spiritual life if they wanted to. Although we distributed books in every town throughout the country we didn’t really stop too much in each town to get to know the people and to talk to them. We did write to people though, and answered their questions through the mail. There was also an active mail-order service for supplying more books and exotic Indian devotional items.
1985, and I’m the proud owner of a – computer
We’d already had an active correspondence and mail-order department running for a few years. It was started by Amita Das, a devotee from New Zealand who was always thinking outside the box. His chief letter-writer was Shastra-Chaksus Das from Australia, a mild-mannered scribe with infinite patience for carefully penning thoughtful and helpful letters, then painstakingly filing all the carbon copies of each letter, clipping them to the enquirer’s letter, then depositing them into numerous cumbersome volumes. (How times have changed!) Later on they were joined by Gangamayi Dasi and Anada Dasi who gave an added dimension to the service by sending out little pieces of mangala-burfi. Even though it inevitably arrived completely flattened by the Post Office, it was a very popular feature of the outreach!
Of course, Srila Prabhupada was the origin of this programme too. Way back in the late 1940s he’d been writing to many leaders and sending them copies of his Back to Godhead newspaper. He’d also been bulk-mailing copies of his newspaper to libraries and institutions, eliciting responses from them, then beginning an exchange of correspondence. In the mid 1950s he set up his League of Devotees, a membership scheme whereby interested people could form an affiliation with him and his new organisation.
In 1973 or maybe 1974 – I forget which – his disciples at the Los Angeles branch of the Bhaktivedanta Book Trust asked him to write a standard response letter which they could send to everyone who wrote to them after reading one of his books. He wrote a two-page letter that was then sent out in the thousands.
So in England we’d been trying to follow his lead. The Back to Godhead magazine was an important part of that strategy as was a membership scheme that became known as FOLK, the Friends of Lord Krishna. A husband and wife team, Madhavendra Puri and Mandakini, created the FOLK magazine which had very daring articles about people who were trying to chant their four rounds and who didn’t shave their heads.
Anyway, the brilliant strategy that emerged from all of this – and which actually created many new devotees – was as follows:
Step 1 – Devotees go to every town and village and distribute books
Step 2 – The same devotees ask the most interested people they meet for their name and postal address
Step 3 – The entire sankirtan party hand in their names and addresses at the end of each week
Step 4 – Names and addresses entered into the very expensive, top of the range 1985 computer
Step 5 – Each person sent complimentary copy of the Back to Godhead magazine, and invited to receive two further monthly copies, entirely free
Step 6 – At the end of three months free subscription, each person invited to become annual subscriber
Step 7 – All annual subscribers invited to join FOLK
Step 8 – All FOLK members invited to form local groups or to join the temple
Now, the amazing statistics for this exceeded everyone’s expectations: 10% of all those offered a 3-month free trial subscription took it up; 10% of those who took it up paid for an annual subscription; and 50% of the annual subscribers – when the programme was running at its peak – joined the temple. Even today, one of those who came to Krishna through this process is a temple president, another is about to enter the sannyasa order of life.