Telephone Fundraising and Sally Morgan

The Western Morning News reports that Sally Morgan, PPC for Central Devon, sent off an angry email to Cowley Street after she received a fundraising call from the party. She is quoted as writing “Please do not employ apparatchiks to telephone me at home to tell me how well the party did in the local elections only days after I and many of my colleagues lost our seats.

She has, incidentally, since described this as “me blowing off steam to somebody in the party”, adding “I am still a parliamentary candidate. I have no argument with the party”, so it’s probably not worth blowing this out of proportion, although it does raise the question of who passed the email to the local press if she didn’t.

What I do think it’s worth commenting on is phone fundraising more generally, since I worked for a time recently for a company who do precisely this kind of work for charities (and, occasionally, the Labour party, although I was never faced with the problem of being asked to work on any campaigns for them). NB: I have never fundraised for the Lib Dems, and to the best of my knowledge, the company I worked for never has done.

In my time, I called on campaigns for several well known charities, often on upgrade campaigns. Frequently, as you might expect, I met the kind of irritable response which Sally Morgan has given here. “Why don’t you call people who don’t already give their time and effort”, “Why are you spending my money pestering me for more”, threats to cancel altogether, etc. Of course, these are all pretty good reasons to refuse, and very rarely could people be talked round.

So why do organisations bother?

Basically, because it’s still a pretty cost effective way of fundraising. I’m sure any members of the party (or of anything funded by its members, for that matter) will be familiar with mailings asking for donations, and with the ease of throwing them in the recycling with barely a second thought. Even cold calling, the returns on are pretty lean pickings. If you carefully select the numbers you call according to any data you might have to suggest that people will be better disposed to you than average people, then you might expect to get about 6% of them to say yes, if you work really pretty hard at it, and don’t take no for an answer. If you call your existing supporters, about 40% of them will say yes. It’s still hard work, and yes, half the people you talk to will give you a hard time for calling them, but at least the other 50% are nice.

Most charities and other fundraising organisations have rules forbidding them to spend money on strategies that they expect to give them a return of less than ~£3 or £4 for every £1 spent (otherwise, their donors would probably rather they spent the money on the stated aims of the organisation). Bumping up subscriptions from people they already have on board is a crucial part of this, especially since their projections of whether it’s worth spending the money to get new donors on board is often based on an assumption that they may well be able to get the person in question to increase after a couple of years. The reasons most charities set a minimum level for Direct Debits of £2 a month is that much less than that and it’s barely worth the admin cost of processing it in the first place.

Now, Sally complains that she has been called up and told that the Lib Dems are well placed for the next election, when she personally has just lost her council seat. Leaving the disentangling of the national fortunes of the Lib Dems from Sally’s own position as an exercise for the reader, how would she rather the party fundraised? Call people up and tell them “We’re going down the shitter, it’s all going to buggery, could we have more money?” Of course the party is going to be upbeat in its attempts to fundraise, because that’s what works.

And yes, sometimes campaign messages jar with people’s own individual experiences. I came across plenty of that. It’s easy, when you’ve got a script in front of you, or have been trained to get people talking about their involvement in the organisation you’re calling for, to find yourself stumbling into all sorts of areas that, in retrospect, you’d probably rather you hadn’t brought up. Try it with a few donors to cancer charities, for instance, and you’ll see what I mean. The problem is, it’s important to the chances of people donating (more) to be positive about what their money can achieve, even if their own personal experience hasn’t borne that out (and statistically, there will always be such people).

If I’m sounding very positive about this way of fundraising, then I probably ought to mention that after a few weeks working for this company, I was so depressed one Monday morning by the prospect of another week ahead of me that I quit my job that day. This is an enormously draining job to do, and the centre in London which I worked in was typical in having what my employers called “a high caller attrition rate”, with weekly training sessions for the next batch of replacements. In the end (and quite quickly, actually), the consolation of totting up how much money I had raised for the charity that day stopped being enough.

I don’t especially like this way of fundraising, I particularly don’t like the emotional blackmail that is often a part of it, and I wish it didn’t work. But at the same time, I would like to congratulate Sally Morgan for doing the right thing here, and blowing off her steam by putting her objections in writing and sending them to the person in charge, not by verbally beating up on the person at the other end of the phone (or at least, I hope she didn’t). Quite often, people would deliver the sort of tirade Sally writes in her letter to me personally, for the offense of calling a number I had been supplied by someone else.

So next time you receive a call from a fundraiser and the answer is “no” (and do always give serious consideration to your answer), politely tell them “no” (if you have the time, brighten up their day by having a nice chat to them, and tell them “no” three times, which is how many times they have been told to ask you unless you hang up or tell them your mother died yesterday), and ask for your number to be taken off the database if you don’t want to be called ever again. Be nice, wish them luck, and then, if you object to the call, write a really stinking letter to the head of fundraising for that organisation. It will do considerably more good than having a rant at the person on the phone, who, if they bothered to report your irritation to their superiors, would only be replaced by someone else.

Hat tip to Lobbydog, via Guido.

ps. I was amused by the following worldly-wise comment of one “Rob’s Uncle” on Lobbydog’s blog:

It is a well recognised weakness of the Lib Dem phone fund raising effort that the phoners know nothing about the activism, etc,. of those whom they ring.

Frankly, it’s hardly unusual not to know much about the people you are calling on telephone fundraising calls, even for upgrade campaigns. I considered myself pretty lucky if I had any information at all about the person I was calling in front of me; occasionally there was a date when they started donating. Yes, this is something the party could improve, but it’s hardly proof of their great deficiency in this regard. Often, the person calling you will not be directly from the organisation in question, but working for a company who specialise in this kind of work, like I was. Even when I was supplied with data, it could often be a few months since the database was sent to my employers, and the information was therefore not completely reliable. The caller who called Sally Morgan, even if they had information about her in front of them, almost certainly didn’t know she had lost her seat.

Of course, you could argue that the people who call councillors maybe ought to be Cowley Street apparatchiks, but the problem then is, they aren’t as experienced and well trained at phone fundraising as someone who specialises in it. Most of the callers I worked with who had been doing their job for more than a few months were bloody good at it. What tended to make them good at it was being able to hold two contradictory stances at the same time: caring deeply enough about what they were doing to put that across on the phone, and being indifferent enough not to let it get to you that many people you spoke to were just unpleasant in return.

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