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Your Solicitation Call Sounds Like a Scam

Ah, it feels good to be blogging again. After a whirlwind spring, summer, and fall at RMC, the start of a new year is a great time for me to start blogging again.

I was actually inspired by a phone call I received just last night. As I was making dinner, the phone rang. I looked at the caller ID before answering and saw that the caller was “Children’s Cancer” and the phone number was an in-state number with an area code I recognized. I have a number of contacts in the nonprofit sector, so I thought there was a chance this was someone I knew, personally or professionally, or that we ended up on a list due to one of my contacts. I answered the phone, and the caller asked for me.

Caller: Hi, may I speak with Angela ::pause:: Ga…..Gaz…..Gaz-dee-zee-ack? (Close enough.)

Me: This is she.

Caller: Boy, are YOU hard to get a hold of!

This was my first red flag. Frankly, I’m NOT that hard to get on the phone, and after being at home for most of the last two weeks, I was certain this number hadn’t called previously. The caller then launched into her script.

Caller: Hi, I’m Vanessa with the Children’s Cancer [Name Partially Redacted] and I’m calling to secure a pledge from you to help children with cancer. Can we count on you for your donation today?

Me: I could certainly be interested in making a gift to the organization, but–

Caller: Oh great! You’re an angel! I’m going to patch you through to our verification center now so you can give right now, over the phone. Is $20 okay?

Me: Um, I said I was interested, I didn’t commit to a gift. Can I ask–

Caller: Remember, every dollar helps and goes immediately to helping these very needy kids with cancer, so it’s important you give right away.

Me: I understand that, but–

Caller: Thanks again for being an angel!

Me: I’m not giving until you tell me more about this organization. Can you send me something?

Caller: Oh certainly! I’d be glad to put something in the mail, and I’ll put my stamp on it so you know it’s from me. I’ll put something out in the mail as soon as we receive your donation today. Thanks for being an angel for these very sick, very needy children! Thank you!

In about 10 seconds, I was connected to a recovery/verification center, and the call was dropped. I was definitely not committed to making a gift, but I wanted to learn more about the organization. After the call was dropped, I Googled the number that called and after browsing the first two pages of results, I found that the organization is consistently named one of the “worst charities in America” and the phone numbers are often flagged as a scam.

I was very put off by the call. I’ve run and worked phone-a-thons before, I’ve been a caller on behalf of nonprofit organizations, so by the end of that phone conversation, I was able to tick off at least 10 mistakes/wrong moves the caller had made. The whole thing felt very “scammy” to me. She didn’t try to talk to me about the organization, she was hesitant to send me any information until after I’d made my gift, and she kept calling me an angel; I felt like she was trying to guilt me into giving, making sure that I remembered those “poor, sick children with cancer” who clearly needed my help.

A few minutes into dinner, the phone rang again. This time, it was a different area code. Sure enough, it was the “verification center” I was speaking with when the call was lost. The caller was apologetic and wanted to secure my donation right away. They wanted my credit card number NOW, over the phone. I said no, absolutely not. I wasn’t going to give my credit card information over the phone to an organization I’d never heard of, and giving by credit card was the only option they gave me. I said I wanted to see something in the mail and make my gift via check. The receiving caller was understanding, but again quite pushy. “Remember to keep an eye out for it, and it’s important that we get that card back as soon as possible, within 1-2 days of receiving it. The children need your donation, so don’t throw it out, and be sure to return it as soon as you see it.”

It’s safe to say I won’t be making a gift to this organization. Even though it seems like a legitimate nonprofit, so much about the phone calls was off-putting, and I really didn’t like being told what to do, how to make my gift, and how much they could get out of me.

What I took away from these calls was a mix of both good and bad. I don’t think it’s a bad idea that they asked if they could count on me for a specific amount, rather than, “would you consider a gift of any size?” In the days after the December holidays, it’s not a bad idea to give potential donors a concrete ask amount to start from. If the call had gone over well and I was interested in making a gift, I probably would have made a much smaller gift. They started at a reasonable amount, I’m guessing based on information they’ve collected on me. I didn’t like that I felt bullied and guilted into making a gift. I didn’t like that when I expressed hesitation, they became pushy and reminded me about those “poor, poor children with cancer.” I didn’t get any information on the organization or what they do, there was no attempt made to convince me or ask me why I was hesitating on a gift. Heck, I’m a known donor to a few nonprofits in the Chicago area, and when a beloved arts organization last had me on the phone I was on the fence about giving again this year because the timing didn’t feel right. The caller was empathetic, followed the script, and asked, “What are your concerns? Is there anything I can say to secure a pledge from you today? What are your reasons for not giving?” They went to great lengths to understand me as a donor. On second thought, I wouldn’t even call those “great lengths.” They didn’t jump through hoops to get me to make a gift, they simply wanted to understand where I was coming from and how likely it was that I would support the organization before the end of 2014. I don’t think that’s an unreasonable expectation of a nonprofit.

To many who may read this, all this is probably old hat. Phone-a-thons and donor outreach aren’t radical new ideas. Basic donor acquisition has been in practice since the first nonprofit started its first fundraising appeal. It surprises me that there are still organizations out there that don’t understand that the face of fundraising has changed, and it simply isn’t possible to acquire donors using their old tactics. Donors are savvier. Millennial donors, especially, want to know what an organization DOES, how exactly will my money be spent? This organization didn’t give me any information, they just tried to tell me about these “poor, sick children, who desperately need your donation today.”

It was a good reminder for me going into the first quarter of 2015. Many organizations will be looking at their numbers, seeing how far they’ve come and where they need to go to meet and exceed their fundraising goals for the fiscal year. If this is what this organization resorts to in order to acquire a new donor, what tactics will they employ to keep their donors? I certainly won’t be finding out.

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