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Trouble on the line?

Howard Lake | 26 November 1998 | News

The Big Issue has featured a story investigating companies that provide telemarketing and direct dialogue recruitment services to charities. Reporter Gibby Zobel focused in particular on the work of Personal Telephone Fundraising, “the largest telephone fundraising agency in the UK.”
UK Fundraising reports on the story and gets PTF’s reaction.

Howard Lake reports:
The Big Issue has featured a story investigating companies that provide telemarketing and direct dialogue recruitment services to charities. Reporter Gibby Zobel focused in particular on the work of Personal Telephone Fundraising, “the largest telephone fundraising agency in the UK.” PTF’s Chris Cunningham has reacted to the article, calling some of the allegations ” ridiculous, overblown and sensational”

Zobel refers to a “commercial document leaked to the Big Issue” which shows that in one proposed contract “every penny of donations given to a major charity over the first year could be entirely swallowed up, with nothing left for the needy, in this case, pensioners”.


Why your supporters are wealthier than you think... Course by Catherine Miles. Background photo of two sides of a terraced street of houses.

The thrust of the article suggests that Zobel feels professional fundraising is questionable. Yet Zobel acknowledges that over the past decade, the use of specialist agencies has become “an inevitable part of raising increasingly large sums of money for charities”. Indeed, the Big Issue Foundation uses the National Telephone Team as part of its fundraising activities.
A new fundraising method

Zobel clearly feels ill at ease with direct dialogue recruitment. This is the relatively new type of fundraising in which charities and campaigning organisations stop people on the street to give them an opportunity to join or make a donation. It is more than a street collection since it involves trying to talk to the individual rather than just take their money. Quite simply, it works, which is why Chris Cunningham, director of Personal Telephone Fundraising, says it is used. Annie Moreton, Greenpeace UK’s director of marketing, backs this up. “This is the most cost-effective way Greenpeace has of recruiting new supporters.”

The article as a whole suggests that this method of fundraising is not appropriate, particularly when conducted by professional agencies. “A fundraising company asks you to donate to a worthy cause,” says the sub-heading. “But how much of your money will actually go to the charity?” Yet the quotes from charity staff and from Chris Cunningham robustly reject this accusation.
Treatment of staff

More damagingly perhaps, Zobel reports comments from former staff of PTF who were dismayed at the initial costs involved in the fundraising methods. One pointed out that the one pound coin pack sent to supporters of the Romanian Orphanage Trust was not enough to cover even the PTF follow-up telephone call, let alone contribute to field work with the orphans. Another ex-worker is quoted as saying “It was either leave or have a nervous breakdown.” He relates how he felt about one campaign on behalf of an animal charity. “I was calling pensioners who had contributed a pittance in the past – we had their files – asking them for 50p standing orders. You could tell it was a toss up between the donation or a pint of milk. We were taught to put the emotional onuson the people we were calling to make it as difficult as possible for them to refuse.”

In response Cunningham is reported as denying that PTF pressurise workers. “In most respects we don’t have targets. We expect people to achieve as much as they possibly can.”

For the article, Zobel managed to get an interview with PTF as a potential caller, using a false name. The terms and conditions of PTF’s contract didn’t look encouraging: “cancellation for any reason (including illness) is potentially a disciplinary matter. Any shift cancelled for any reason must be replaced with an additional shift within one week of the cancellation… Lateness of five or more minutes, two or more times in a two week period, will be treated with the utmost seriousness.”

Zobel relates the experience of being kept in “detention” with another inductee. “My crime? After [the trainer’s] question, I’d apparently raised my eyebrows in a way which offended the company.” Zobel then left PTF.
PTF respond

UK Fundraising invited PTF to respond to the article. Chris Cunningham said; “I feel the ridiculous, overblown and sensational nature of the allegations by ‘anonymous’ ex-employees in a sense makes the point for us. We are a successful company, and this could not have been achieved without the enormous emphasis we have always placed on the welfare and development of our staff.”

He described suggestions about the ways in which the company is alleged to work as “wholly without foundation.” He added: “many of our clients regularly visit our premises, observe our work, and indeed socialise with our staff; they regularly declare themselves impressed with the motivation and commitment of staff and management. It is hard to credit that this could be the case if our atmosphere and practices were as described. As I stated in the original article, we do not have stargets – we expect every employee to focus first and foremost on donor happiness, and we know from experience that if this is done, financial results will follow.”

Cunningham felt that the allegations about unfair terms in the company’s contracts of employment were “particularly ludicrous.” He explained: “the allegations about unfair terms in our contracts of employment were particularly ludicrous, as these terms far exceed the norm in the telemarketing industry. We are the only practitioners in the telephone fundraising field to offer our staff permanent contracts – casual labour is the norm. All disciplinary actions (which are extremely rare– in the last year five people out of a staff of 160 have received formal warnings on any subject) are taken under the very clear regime agreed with our union, the T&G.”

Cunningham says that the Trade Union official quoted in the article was contacted by one of PTF’s clients to find out more about his concerns. The official said that his comments had been distorted in the Big Issue article. “He was then sent a copy of our contract, and declared himself satisfied with it.”
Significance of the article?

So, what is the significance of the Big Issue article? It is encouraging to see fundraisers and fundraising agencies held up to public scrutiny, but the article is unlikely to change much. Stephen Lee, Kingston Smith research fellow in voluntary sector management at South Bank University, writes in this month’s issue of Professional Fundraising that “fundraisers have always enjoyed a sceptical public persona, rather like dentists; when needed you’re everyone’s best friend, but when you’re not, who are we kidding!”

Public disquiet over “professionalisation” of fundraising is not new, and nor are the concerns that fundraisers and fundraising agencies are paid too much. That is not, of course, a reason for inaction or an excuse not to root out abuses, but at the same time fundraisers and fundraising agencies have to learn to live with such an attitude.