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Telephone fundraising might not be pleasant – but it works

Charity call centre scandal, screamed a headline in the News of the World last Sunday. The paper had sent an undercover reporter to a training session for callers at telephone fundraising agency Pell and Bales.

It accused Pell and Bales of using “shameless tactics” to “generate money from the jobless, frail and even sick.” The company’s training manager, Travis Hodges, is reported to have told trainee fundraisers that “if someone says they’ve just been made redundant, it doesn’t matter. For all you know they might have just got a huge pay-out!”

It said bosses monitored calls and reprimanded staff who didn’t ask for money enough times.

The article also accuses the firm, which last year agreed to end its practice of making ‘administrative’ calls to people who had asked not to be contacted, of calling people registered with the Telephone Preference Service.

If true, the newspaper’s allegations suggest that Pell and Bales is breaking the law and the Institute of Fundraising’s code. But Derwyn Jones, chief executive of the Panther Group, which owns Pell and Bales, told Third Sector the firm only called TPS-registered people if they were existing supporters of the charity and had agreed to be contacted.

He said it was difficult to strike the right balance between motivating staff to meet their targets and making them feel comfortable about their work.

“Charities have invested money in telephone fundraising and they need to get a good return on their investment,” he said. “And raising money over the phone is a difficult job, which a lot of people are not suited to. But we draw the line at bullying staff.”

The Institute of Fundraising and the Fundraising Standards Board will hold a meeting next month to clear the air about telephone fundraising. Charities, fundraising agencies and representatives from the Information Commissioner’s Office will gather to clarify the legislation and the best practice guidelines on the subject.

But will this work? It’s perfectly possible that Pell and Bales has done nothing in this case that is illegal or against any codes of practice – but it still ruffles feathers.

The truth is, telephone fundraising, like face-to-face fundraising on the street, is a difficult job and is inevitably driven by targets – which put staff under pressure to raise funds.

And, by and large, it works, raising millions for charity. A telesales culture in fundraising agencies might not be pleasant, but there’s not much any regulator can do to stop it.

  • Adrian Phillips

    Much of the effectiveness of telephone fundraising is built around relationship building. Of course agencys have to hit the clients targets otherwise they don’t get the work, but it’s the how which is important otherwise you’d just end up with a donor base of one-off givers. Engaing with supporters and listening to their hopes and fears is just as vital as asking them to donate. Most forms of fundraising don’t engage in the way voice to voice does and done well it’s hard to beat.

  • Adrian Salmon

    Ouch. Obviously you don’t know whether the trainer was misquoted, taken out of context, or whatever, but it’s not the attitude I’d want to start my trainee callers off with!

    Telephone fundraising can be really pleasant – if it’s done with respect and I’d like to think that in my calling room we try and respect every single graduate of the University we phone to ask for a gift. In fact we get quite a few emails and postcards from alumni who have really enjoyed the calls! I’ve redone the way we approach the ‘ask’ recently to make it a more pleasant part of the call, both for my callers, and alumni – it’s just as hard to ask as to be asked, you know.

    One very loyal donor who’s given us a cheque every year for the past 5 years, said he didn’t want to do a Direct Debit because then he wouldn’t get his yearly phone call!

    That’s what I’m after – it would feel very hollow to me to raise lots of money but have unhappy donors. I want the calls we do to help build a true sense of community and common purpose with the people we speak to.