United Kingdom call centre nightmare

publication date: Aug 8, 2016
author/source: Alison Keys

Alison Keys
Many fundraisers know the merits of adding quality tele-fundraising into an integrated program, but some -- especially Board members seem to hate the mere thought of using the phone to raise money. Why? Because they think that call centres are boiler rooms run by unscrupulous managers, packed with people trained to manipulate donors into making donations, and that receiving phone calls from a charity is nothing short of a nightmare!

Unfortunately, the nightmare came true for some of the UK's largest charities including Oxfam, British Red Cross, Macmillan Cancer Support, and Cancer Research UK (CRUK) last July (2015)  when the Daily Mail newspaper caught wind of how some of the UK’s call centres were mis-treating generous supporters and prospects. The call centre GoGen, at the centre of the investigation, was even accused of causing the suicide of Olive Cooke, a sweet elderly volunteer poppy seller.

The explosive exposé that resulted from the undercover investigation found the telephone fundraising company GoGen preyed on vulnerable members of the public to sign up to direct debit donations, despite knowing they had dementia, Alzheimer disease or were terminally ill. They also contacted people who were registered with the government’s opt-out nuisance call database. The call centre coaches regularly insisted that being over 90 years old was no excuse to saying no to making a monthly donation! GoGen denied all of the allegations stating, “We have never called individuals without the full support and permission of the charity in question. It is easy to forget, given the critical climate we are currently living in, that as fundraisers we raise money for necessary and worthwhile causes.”

I’d rather believe (I am always an optimist and owner of an ethical fundraising call centre) they had the best intentions in mind, but perhaps let the pressure to produce strong results for their charities get the better of them.

Serious consequences

GoGen had to close its doors and 485 employees lost their jobs overnight. Not only that, the fundraising sector took another major blow to its reputation. And now the UK government has stepped in to impose even more strict regulations, making the job of raising money much more challenging.

This is a lesson to us all -- that we cannot get away with treating staff and the charitable public with contempt.

Is GoGen solely to blame, or are the charities they worked for also responsible?

The charities hired them, they should have known what was happening. In any case, GoGen failed its staff and also the people, children, animals, and the environments that need the help of these charities.

It is vitally important that charities take more responsibility for the fundraising that happens under their watch, and not allow such practices to take place.

In Canada, we are much too polite and respectful to take advantage of the elderly or the ill. But as a charity that engages with an agency to conduct telephone fundraising, you should make sure:

  • Your agency has its own internal “Do Not Call” list that it uses to suppress anyone who has asked not be called (as you probably know, registered charities do not have scrub their lists against Canada’s Do Not Call registry).
  • If a donor asks to be removed from a charities calling list, we (as a call centre) flag the record as a “do not call”, but it is up to you to make sure that request is imported to your database’s permanent record and suppress them from future calling campaigns.
  • Elderly donors are not pushed into making a monthly donation because we know they don’t like to make long term commitments. They don’t even like to buy green bananas!
  • We live by the Golden Rule: Treat others as you would expect to be treated.
  • There are mechanisms in place to handle donor complaints and keep complaints to a minimum.

The onus is on all of us to make sure our generous donors have a good experience with us. Afterall, they are trying to help us achieve our missions and make the world a better place. And isn’t that better for everyone?

Alison Keys, president of Keys Direct Marketing and Communications, is recognized as a direct marketing strategist and communications expert. For nearly two decades, Keys Direct has provided high quality tele-fundraising, direct mail, e-marketing and consulting services to nonprofits. Alison serves as a mentor to Keys Direct staff as well as a hands-on partner with the agency’s clients. Contact Alison at Alison@keysdirect.com.


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