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Phone Solicitations

Legal Counsel for Philanthropy and the Nonprofit Sector

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Phone Solicitations

DINING DONORS ALL CHEWED UP

This article, by Ken Hoffman, originally appeared in Third Sector on January 11, 2001.

Dinner is cooked, hot, and on the table. The hungry family members are about to lift the first forkful of roast chicken. The phone rings. It is a telephone solicitation from a charity.

This is the dinnertime scenario in homes all across America. As the evening wears on, the phone calls shift gradually westward, from New England to California, through four time zones.

For two years. I worked for a charity which raised nearly £3m - and nearly all of it unrestricted - from a vast boiler room operation of paid telephone solicitors. One evening, I was allowed to listen to the calls.

The solicitors for the smallest donors ranged in quality from adequate to terrible. But the solicitors assigned to the prior donors of $1,000 or more were artists! They were friendly, convincing, sympathetic and extremely persistent. I heard renewals for $1,000, upgrades to $5,000, and one breakthrough for $10,000.

Back in my daytime office, I would usually receive a handful of calls from annoyed charity members. They had phoned the regional office to complain about the call we had placed to them last night, during dinner.

What could I say? That it was not our office staff who had phoned, but hired guns who earned a percentage of each gift? Mealy-mouthed apology was the order of the day.

Over time, I became convinced that the phone operation was a mistake, that it was garnering short-term cash at the risk of long-term alienation. So I summoned up my courage and recommended to the head of development that we pull the plug on the operation. I think he had heard that one before. His response was, 'If you can find me £3m in unrestricted gifts, I will terminate the phone operation tomorrow.'

Fifteen years later, I have no easy answer to finding large, unrestricted sums. But I am convinced more than ever that telephone solicitations are ultimately self-destructive. By their intrusive nature, they erode the society-wide capital of goodwill that most of the country's citizens feel toward the charitable sector. The tragedy is that no one charity can give up a source of income for the common good, if all the competing charities continue to telephone.

So if there is no alternative, at least there are some ameliorating steps. For one thing, a volunteer solicitor is infinitely preferable to a hired solicitor. For another, existing donors should be able to opt out of the telephone system, because loyal, renewing donors should be kept happy. All members can be warned by post that a phone campaign is in effect.

As for preserving your own peace of mind at home, you will want to purchase a caller identification service, which displays each caller's name and number. If I do not know you, I do not answer. Dinner is served.