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Why You Should Never Answer Your Phone Again

A consumer protection warning from the depths of the Fundraising Trenches. How residents of Marina Del Rey are targeted and plagued with unwanted solicitations from absolute strangers.

In this year of election, in this year of causes, there is a great deal of need for resources to fund “The Good Fight”. During these uncertain times many issues have come to light that have sparked a war of ideals and values. The nation, nay, the world, is divided and as we all know, conflict is synonymous with politics and budgets and religious mores.

So when your phone rings during the day, after lunch or right in the middle of dinner and a total stranger announces that the “Are Calling On Behalf...” of your favorite causes, there is one thing and one thing only they want: YOUR MONEY. And there is only one thing, and one thing only you should do: HANG UP THE PHONE AND NEVER ANSWER IT AGAIN.

I took the liberty this summer of answering my landline all day long one day, to see who could possibly be ringing me on such an outdated mode of communication. Every single call was a solicitor---a fundraiser. These were not people looking for my support on a ballot initiative or seeking my opinion for a poll, these were unilaterally a long string of professionally paid knobs who sit in a cubicle and wait for a mechanical dialer to ring a number. After a week or so of haranguing these seemingly well meaning, but greed-based strangers on the merits of their company’s business ethics, I decided to get involved personally.

It seems my home phone number was sourced from great vast database of former donors or interested parties for some particular cause. If you have ever supported a cause by donating online or filling out a petition on a clipboard in a shopping mall or street fair, and just so happened to give your phone number, then you are in the system. This system is bought and sold by dozens of fund raising organizations, and your number is fed into a computerized auto-dialer. A minimum wage employee sits in a cubicle in a big flat office somewhere in the world and waits for a person or answering machine to pick up.

This is common knowledge. What isn’t common knowledge is how these idealistic and usually desperate employees are motivated along the course of the Fund Raising Process. Read: How they get people to get ever and ever more pushy and sneaky and deliberate in order to get every last penny out of your pocket, purse and credit accounts.

Consider this a consumer protection article for all the decent residents of Marina Del Rey and other neighborhoods around the country. Marina Del Rey has a good number of retirees, idealists, and adherents to noble causes that may feel compelled to help out. I seek to inform and to implore all of you---To Never Answer Your Phone Again.

After that week of discovery, which I now call it, I decided to look into the two fund raising companies that were pestering me the most. Telefund and Donor Services Group, are both located here in Los Angeles and both offer vast open calls for new employees. I contacted them and got an interview.

First was Telefund.

Located on the 12th floor of a high-rise in Korea Town, it took me an hour and a half via bus and train to get there. I decided from the beginning that I would go into these jobs without any pocket money or transportation, being as that was how most of the employees, I had learned from the phone interview, arrived to work each day. So I arrived and sat in an outer room with various other prospects. We were given a pep talk that identified Telefund as a champion of “Progressive Causes”: The Democratic National Committee, Obama’s Re-Election Campaign, Planned Parenthood, Gay Rights, Animal Shelters, etc.. etc. Liberal Causes to be short. Looking around the table there were many older people and young idealists. The conversation at the table was about “Doing Good” and “Fighting Back”. Mostly, these people needed a job. So we went through a two day---unpaid---trial period. Two days unpaid. Then we would be set at a computer and take calls for minimum wage. Sounds okay, until you get in position and are instructed not to take “No” for an answer.

Most of the people who pick up the phone on the other end of the line are angry. They have already given this year or are dead broke and are in no position to give at all. The computer screen tells you how much this person gave the last time they donated and the date that they did it. So you have a base money amount to work with. A suggested amount of twice the last donation is suggested. From there a caller can negotiate with a done in ever-assertive ways. These techniques are pressed upon the caller very day. You must learn how to coax cash out of people who do not want to give it to you.

This Fundraising industry is very organized. As an employee you are graded against the room. If you don’t perform well, you are axed. If you don’t read the disclaimers at the front of the script, you are violating the law and will be terminated. So it is in your best interest to keep the numbers up, to keep the caller on the line until they get angry and hang up. You just can’t coast on the hourly wage. Accordingly, when you get a person on the phone who tells you they are not interested, you are highly motivated to keep those suckers on the line and plead with them and use guilt and perform as aggressively as the law allows to convince them to give.

Not just any amount will do either. There are minimums. You have to get a certain amount or the call is not considered worth the cost. There are two ways to get the money in: A mailer envelope to be sent to an address or the All Mighty Credit Card. The management really stressed the importance of the credit card. It eliminates postage and paper and envelopes and the money is immediate. Once you get the credit card you thank the person for supporting the cause and then don’t hang up. You go right back in and sell the monthly plan. Why give once a year when you can give every month. As a caller you already have their credit card and a donation, so why not go for more. I have been screamed at by people who see this as nothing short of pushy salesmanship: ungrateful greed. But who cares? It’s all about a good cause, right? Wrong. It is about Fund RAISING, not Fund LOWERING. That is the main chant in the locker room of any business like this. It gets worse.

At Telefund they are basically easy going and hippy-like. As long as you make the numbers and abide by the strict Federal and State laws governing the script and methods of phone solicitation, you can do what you want. Take a break when you want, go out and get high in your car when you need it, eat, drink, and socialize when you like. Just “Smile and Dial”!

When I went into train at Donor Services Group it was a totally different world. Located in Hollywood in the glossy, refurbished former Hollywood Reporter building, this place was like going into a military boot camp. I had to take an aptitude test upon arrival, then a personal interview in a cold well decked-out office. There was wood paneling on the walls and everyone wore suits and ties. They were paying $10 an hour for training which, after the 8-hour pep talk and orientation we were all informed that no talking was permitted. No food or drinks except under strict guidelines of documented and timed breaks in a break room or outside at tables. Any cell phone or camera seen on “The Floor” (The main calling area resembling a stock trader bullpen) was grounds for instant termination.

There was a tall intimidating black man named Kenny who bragged about being a former gang banger who was shot in the back with a .45 automatic. He was the “Bad Cop”. Then there was a tall skinny white man named Garrett who was more congenial and thus the “Good Cop”. These two trainers, both impeccably dressed, worked in tandem to condition the new recruits into a mindless, emotionless, fundraiser. The difference between Telefund and Donor Services Group was the hard-nosed “money at all cost” ethics of the Donor Services Group. DSG, as they called themselves, was a highly structured Wall Street Style operation with many more clients than Telefund and many more rules that were specifically designed for each of these clients. The tactics for getting their money were highly designed and sharpened to steel blade efficiency. Anyone having a problem with all of this was invited to use the back door on his or her way out.

The first week in training I saw the dismissal of several older women who were asking too many questions or answering their phones or talking on the floor. Our task as trainees was to do the easiest job on the floor and that was to call donors who had just donated and ask them to join the “Monthly Giving” plan. This plan was a monthly charge on credit card to supplement what had already just recently been given. We had a long string of reasons why this made great sense and offered great value to the donor who had just given. Mostly it was to get more money out of them. I had elderly women crying on the phone telling me that they have been called eight and ten times a day because they had just given their last dollar to help a cause. Now they are afraid when the phone rings. People with terminal illnesses had the same problem, just gave and now their phone rings off the hook. Irate families who had effectively lost the use of their home phone because it rang so much swore on their children’s lives that they would never donate again.

We, as Professional Fund Raisers, were told to ignore these simple facts of the dialing business and do everything we can to calm the donor and get their credit card. I became cold and withdrawn. I could not muster the tone of voice to effectively project cheer and confidence to the people a machine was connecting me with. My calls began to fail. When the numbers of failed calls reached a point where it was bringing down the average of the room, and thus threatening the daily bonus of the trainers, I was sent home. I was told to take the rest of the day and deliberately “Not Think” about calling people.

I never went back.

My paycheck was short when it came in the mail and I still have yet to be paid for the last day of wages despite daily phone calls for over a month.

Network news agencies have done reports on how these companies take so much off the top from the money that they raise, that the charities and causes that hire them see very little of what is given.

This is why you should never answer your phone again. If someone is calling for money from an organization that raises money on behalf of a charity or cause, just get the name of the charity or cause and donate directly. All of your money will go directly to the cause; a secondary or tertiary party will take none. If you really want to help, go online or call your non-profit of choice and donate to them first-hand. The calls will stop and the unsolicited mailers will cease to clog you mailbox.

As a footnote, a few months after I finished my research into these fundraising companies, I received a class action lawsuit invitation against Telefund. Apparently a bunch of former employees got together and hired a lawyer and sued to be paid for their two days of unpaid training. I joined and then got a sinister idea. I drove down to the Telefund offices and said I wanted to return to work. They put me back in training and when it came time to sit at a computer terminal and read the script in front of a trainer (Who was monitoring me through a connected headset), I refused. The trainer looked at me like I had just exposed my genitals to her.

I said, “I don’t want to do it like that. This long script is counter-productive to me making any money for you. All these disclaimers I have to read before I speak to the person on the other end, it really puts a distance between the donor and myself. I won’t do it.”

Blank stare. She blinked a couple times.

“Let me do it my way. You’ll be impressed”, I said.

“You have to do it this way. It s our policy and THE LAW”, she croaked out.

“Naw. I won’t do it. My way is better. Get a manager over here, NOW!”

The trainer got up and raced across the room and grabbed a floor manager. With her head tilted to the side, and shoulders tensed up around her neck, I could see she was angrily explaining what was going on, trying to keep her voice down. The body language said it all. The manager came over with a stern look on his face, dreadlocks dangling out from under a Rasta Cap.

“What is going on? You’ve done this before. You know the rules”, the manager said.

“Sure I do”, I replied. “They are ridiculous. All this fuss in order to BOTHER PEOPLE and NOT GET SUED. These rules and regulations make it impossible to get anything done. They bore the donor, make the process cold and impersonal and it ultimately sets us all up for failure”.

The floor manager slowly closed his eyes and squeezed them tight, realizing what I was up to. With a gentle motion of his hand he beckoned me to follow him out of the room.

“What? I am being Fired?” I asked.

“You are leaving now”, he said, turning his back to me, still wagging his hand for me to follow. The entire floor was focused on me now. I was being TERMINATED.

I raised my voice.

“But then I won’t be able to listen to old ladies cry at me, begging me to stop calling them! I won’t get to be screamed at by angry people who have already donated and who swear to all mighty God that they will never support their charity ever, ever, ever, again! Please, you are taking away my ability to interrupt the dinners of total strangers across every time zone in North America…”

My voice had cracked into a sneering high-pitched cackle.

I paused and scanned to room making eye contact with as many people in the room as possible.

“And all for eight dollars and hour.”

Then I left. I can imagine most of those people were weeded-out in the next two months. Used and discarded. On my way out of the call center I passed through the outer room where another group of potential callers were huddled looking unsure and desperate.

I nodded to the troops and got in the elevator.

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