This post originally appeared in VICE UK
I arrived early for my first call center shift, hanging around by the doors until I had to clock in. Inside, the guy to my left sighed, sinking into his seat. He'd already worked the previous session without much of a break. "You've just got to hustle, man," he told me, hooking a headset over his ear.
Normally, I would have empathized with a young jobseeker working back-to-back shifts for only slightly more than minimum wage. Mostly because that's also exactly who I was and what I was doing. But, as charity fundraisers, the job mostly seemed to involve coaxing donations out of the elderly's retirement funds. I wasn't sure who was being hustled.
Earlier this year, an investigation by Channel 4's Dispatches accused professional fundraising organizations of using underhand tactics to target vulnerable people, putting undue pressure on potential donors and using misleading scripts.
In my experience, fundraisers are well aware of this. Spending every shift asking pensioners to part with the money they've spent an entire life earning is a horribly depressing way to pay the rent. In fact, half an hour into my first shift, another new recruit put the phone down, picked up his bag and walked out. Most people hate making the call as much as the recipients regret picking up the phone.
Yet, evidence suggests that, despite how oppresively irritating it is, telephone fundraising works incredibly well: it's raised more than $3 billion over the last 25 years. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Alistair McLean—Chief Executive of the Fundraising Standards Board—told me that outsourcing fundraising is also cost-effective for charities.
"We live in a country where it's absolutely the right of the consumer to give," he said. "It's equally the right of the charity to ask."
The logic may be sound, but that explanation doesn't excuse the fact that most people really, really don't like being asked. Charity calls prompt more complaints per request for money than any other fundraising technique. More than a third of these complaints are due to people disliking the method itself.
McLean believes the directness of telephone fundraising might explain this—it's much harder to put down the phone mid-conversation than to throw a letter in your recycling bin or stride past a santa holding a bucket.
"I do feel that, because it's a very personal approach, if you catch someone on the wrong foot, it's more likely to generate a complaint," he said.
Experienced fundraisers often don't even expect anyone to pick up the phone. They leave it to ring the required six times and continue chatting with the person next to them before hanging up. There's always a danger that, if someone does answer, they'll hear the end of a conversation about the fundraiser's latest medical issue, or a recap of last week's softball match against a rival branch.
The campaign I worked on involved asking donors who normally give by cash or check to set up a direct debit. This makes sense on paper, as regular direct debits help charities to budget. In practice, however, it doesn't work at all. Many contacts are technology-shy pensioners who would really rather just send a check whenever they see a disaster on the news.
Calls are strictly structured, and sticking to the script is essential in keeping your job. Once the contact agrees to the call, you ask a series of pre-planned icebreaker questions. The aim here is to establish a rapport, starting a two-way conversation.
Of course, that conversation is a little one-sided at first. Your opening speech is so long that you've reached the halfway point on your A4 script by the time you finish. Aside from the occasional "uh huh," the contact can't really contribute to the conversation. This, according to trainers, is kind of the point: you're building your argument for donating without being interrupted.
But this lack of personal involvement could actually prevent people from giving, according to Antoinette Nicolle, a psychology research fellow at Nottingham University. "Because it's so scripted, this build-up part, as a decision-maker you're not really getting involved in it," she told me.
Argument built, you ask for donations three times. Every new employee gets an "objection handling" document, their bible for dealing with unsure donors. As a general rule, it instructs you to repeat what the contact said to show that you empathize with them. Maybe this is just me, but it's kind of tricky to feel genuine when even your empathy is scripted.
Objection safely handled, you rebuild your argument before asking for a smaller payment. If the contact hasn't yet slammed the phone down, you deflect another objection and ask for one final donation.
It's easy to see how asking someone for money they refuse to give three times might leave them feeling harassed. Psychologists call this method the door-in-the-face technique, because the first request is so huge that the contact is likely to slam their metaphorical door in your face. However, they're then more likely to agree to other, more reasonable requests. I overheard one retiree, shocked speechless at being asked for $125, sign up to give $60 a year with barely a second thought.
Donors are, to a certain extent, in a position of power. They can always put the phone down. But—in my experience, at least—the majority of the people who actually pick up the phone during the day are conversation-starved elderly people. Hanging up would mean ending the chat, so they tend to stay on the line.
When someone tells you about the rising price of their weekly shop, or how their husband was recently diagnosed with bowel cancer, or how they're on their own now, alone in an empty house, continuing to flick through your objection handling booklet makes you feel like a sociopath. Every ounce of your conscience is screaming at you to thank them for their time and click the "end call" button on your computer screen.
Dispatches found evidence that fundraisers received bonuses for exceeding targets, something I never encountered. Meeting targets was more likely to earn you control over the office stereo, a strange arrangement that once meant listening to two hours of Bhangra while updating donors on the Syrian crisis. An online review of one call center describes staff members rewarding themselves with a homophobic dancehall track.
Right at the end of the script was a disclaimer informing the donor that you worked for a professional fundraising agency. Dispatches suggested that donors might react differently if they knew professionals were involved earlier in the call. Fundraising copywriters leave it until the end of the script for exactly the same reason. According to Alistair McLean, it's actually just "common sense."
But telling new contacts I worked "on behalf of" a charity still felt dishonest. One elderly man appreciated what he thought was a charity's personal call so much that he promised to leave them money in his will. I could have set up a posthumous donation there and then, but I'm glad I didn't because I'd imagine the guilt would still keep me up at night.
"I have Alzheimer's," she whispered. I knew I couldn't do the job any longer.
Halfway through my first day, as part of my training process, I listened to an experienced caller tick off all the boxes, boasting uninterrupted about the charity's work. She moved straight into the first ask, suggesting a donation of $60 twice a year. There was a long pause and I wondered if the contact had hung up.
"I have Alzheimer's," she whispered. I knew I couldn't do the job any longer.
Many telephone fundraisers behave sensitively and do good work, and Alistair McLean told me he actually saw signs of good fundraising practice in the Dispatches report.
However, the evidence of fundraisers lying and harassing donors found by the program's investigators is worrying for the sector. Already, more than half of those polled are "very annoyed" by telephone fundraising, according to a 2014 survey.
"You can imagine that, in a situation where someone is frustrated," said Antoinette, "it might make them less inclined to donate, even if they're sympathetic with the charity."
To me, that hit the nail on the head. It's a given, but not treating donors with the right amount of sensitivity risks alienating. And how do you expect to make a difference like that?
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