Why I quit as a telephone fundraiser
Last year, many bloggers on Third Sector wrote about ‘chuggers’ and telephone fundraisers. When I first moved to London, I started working for a telephone fundraising agency. I was cash-strapped and interested in learning what fundraisers say and know about the charities they raise money for. It paid £8.50 an hour, which was quite a decent rate. My vested interest was two fold. I needed to earn money but I was also interested in learning the tricks of the trade of how agencies and charities collaborated.
During my training I was particularly shocked at the three-ask script that callers had to abide by while battling with the public. In most cases, the initial ‘ask’ was £20 per month, then, once rejected, as it usually was, this was reduced to £10 and then to £5 (or any suggestion the donor agreed). In between the rejections, callers then used a cushion of facts and figures to convince the donor to sign up. Supervisors would usually listen in once you clicked the ‘donate’ button. If you came off script or the supervisor thought you were going to lose the gift then they would come over and coach you, mid-call, to make sure you sealed the deal. More often than not this distraction meant you couldn’t concentrate and the donor was lost. Of course, it was always my fault and never the supervisor, rabbiting in my ear. Praise was minimal. In my probation I did rather well, raising the equivalent of £6.5K in my first 10 weeks. Obviously, the call centre managers took credit for most of that.
I know Plan and many other charities visit the centres they have commissioned to listen and evaluate the callers’ techniques, including adherence to script. While the calls that are shown as examples are selected randomly, I’m not convinced that’s enough. In the six months I worked there I was never asked by any of the charities about my opinion of the script; the asks; or the general feedback from donors.
It was clear that donors generally feel very saturated. Charities pester them by post, by media, in the street, on the phone, in their emails and on their morning commute. Once you give, there is no escape unless you decide to opt out of receiving print material. Even then, you still need to master the art of dodging chuggers. And with every second shop on the high street a charity shop, there are endless ways that you can support. Elderly supporters, particularly, are exhausted. They don’t want to give every single month, they send £10 at Christmas, and have done so every Christmas for as long as they can remember; yet we constantly pester them for more.
Further, as I mentioned in a previous blog, older people have the burden of giving – they are the biggest donors, so that often means each person is supporting several charities, which amounts to a lot of money every month. Often people were giving up to £50, shared between five different charities, yet there I was asking for them to commit to yet another organisation or asking them to increase their gift.
I felt guilty, and so after six months I quit. I couldn’t carry on emotionally pushing people to give more and more away in a time of austerity and poor economic circumstances. Charities seemed insensitive because their appetite to pursue donors is insatiable, which meant I seemed insensitive. Of course, I was trained to listen to their concerns, but to reflect those objections several times throughout the call. I had become a ‘typical’ telephone fundraiser and I hated it. People could also request not to be called again but that was often too late – they already felt alienated. Many threatened to cancel (though I’m not sure how many did, because we had to direct them to customer relations) and I wonder how much harm that call did.
If you are responsible for commissioning in call centres and are reading this, my advice is to talk to the callers. Build it into your contract with them that you will meet callers and seek their feedback, preferably without a supervisor in the room. You could learn a lot from the abuse and feedback that donors give them over the phone. I know tele-fundraising still often delivers the best ROI, but we have to be cautious of the long-term damage that my be caused to charities, especially among younger givers who are often already insulated against these experiences and have no hesitation in hanging up the phone and cancelling their direct debit.