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IT'S BEEN NEARLY A YEAR since an investigation revealed widespread abuses by charities that use telemarketers to raise money. Yet few people have heard of the study or its results.

In June 2013 the Tampa Tribune published a detailed exposé that began, “The worst charity in America operates from a metal warehouse in Holiday, (Florida). ” The article reported that the Kids Wish Network used telemarketers to raise millions of dollars, ostensibly to help dying children. Only three cents of every dollar actually reached the children.

In a series of articles, reporters for the Tribune and the Center for Investigative Journalism compiled a list of the country’s 50 worst charities, based on telemarketing abuses. The investigation continues, and the articles in the series can be found here: http://www.tampabay.com/topics/specials/worst-charities.page

Giving to good causes is part of the American Way. Not a bad thing at all, just a little tricky to do with care. Requests for contributions accost us from every quarter. Walk into a grocery store, or a department store, or a restaurant, and chances are there will be a can for donations on the counter, and perhaps even a pitch to get you to throw in your spare change.

To me fundraising calls are the most intrusive and troubling of these sales pitches. As the Tribune articles show, it’s easy for the caller to tell lie after lie and avoid detection. In fact, the voice on the other end may not be a person at all, but a well-designed robot.

Because of this, Jeff and I have a standing rule: We never pledge money over the phone. Never—and I use that word almost, well, never. We simply thank the caller as politely as possible and hang up. Here’s why: Even when telemarketers are scrupulously honest, they take a cut of your donation. That’s money lost to the charity you’ve just decided (under pressure, even if subtle) to support.

The calls are also needlessly intrusive. If a charity doesn’t reach you the first time, the caller will hang up without leaving a message and try you again, and again.

Years ago, besieged by junk phone calls, we placed our phone numbers on a Do Not Call list. But the list covers only businesses. Charities and political organizations are exempt. And if you give money to one organization, your number may be sold to others, who will soon begin to call. The Tribune articles document this and show how callers use guilt tactics to convince people to pledge more than they can afford.

Recently our phone number somehow landed on such a list. This wouldn’t be so bad, except that the callers have grown increasingly rude.

For decades our policy was to ask the telemarketer to mail us some information about the charity. We’d look at it and decide. But apparently that’s no longer possible. Twice recently I had callers tell me they’d be happy to send me literature as soon as I made a $250 pledge.

I’m sympathetic to the idea that telemarketers should be treated courteously. I try to keep my temper in check. But last week two callers from the same organization got beneath my skin by reciting identical scripts. It began with, “Is Jeffrey there?”

I answered both calls. “Sorry, he’s not.” He was, but I knew no friend would ask for him by that name.

“Oh,” the caller said each time, “I’m really calling for either one of you.” She launched into a pitch and refused to stop, even when I first calmly then loudly objected. When I tried to request that our number be taken off their list, both callers hung up on me.

Even when a telemarketer is polite, and when he or she talks knowledgeably about a cause in which we believe, we don’t pledge money over the phone. Instead, we go to the organization’s web site and make contributions there. That way, the charity receives the full amount.

There are many ways to make financial donations that will effectively help people in need. The most direct method is to get to know an organization and its staff well, so you can understand exactly what you are supporting.

That’s impossible to do when your only contact with the group is an eager voice reading from a script on the far end of a telephone line.


AuthorJan DeBlieu