Imagine that someone knocks on your door at four in the morning. Startled, bleary, and concerned that the police have arrived with some dreadful news, you stumble to the door and open it. There stands a disreputable looking young person. "DOUCHEBAG!" he screams in your face, further startling you.
Then he smiles.
"Good morning, Sir or Ma'am," he says. "I'm for the Federation for Knocking on Your Door at Four in the Morning and Calling You a Douchebag. FKYDFMCD is a no-profit-to-you organization that raises money so train young people like me to knock on your door at four in the morning and call you a douchebag. Your donation would buy me expensive running shoes to make it easier to walk around your neighborhood knocking on doors at four in the morning and calling people douchebags, and would buy my boss a second home in Malibu, from which he can send me additional instructions on the inflection I should use when I call you douchebag. This week he told me to put the emphasis on the DOUCHE. I hope that worked for you. Plus, he gives me a little pocket money. Sometimes, if I haven't spent it on liquor, I give a few bucks to the girl at the Greenpeace booth at the street festival, because she's kind of hot."
"How much of a donation can I put you down for?"
I suspect that very, very few of you would give the guy any money. You'd probably slam the door in his face and call the cops, and write to the FTC the next day about FKYDFMCD.
And yet plenty of you are, by donating to charities that reach you through telemarketing, doing the equivalent of opening your checkbook for that guy.
Charities are exempt from the National Do Not Call Registry. Congress decided that while people ought to be able to free themselves from unsolicited calls trying to sell us worthless mutual funds and time shares in Boca Raton, people ought to have to put up with calls asking us to donate to charities and politicians. Of course, Congress is weak and slow on the uptake, so it's hardly surprising they got this so breathtakingly wrong.
Let's make this very clear: unless you are very lucky in which charities are calling you, and unless you very carefully research them before giving, any donations you make over the phone are doing very little to help any worthwhile charity. Instead, any donation you give is primarily used to promote and continue the industry that calls you during dinner and harasses you, the industry that painstakingly trains its call center employees not to take "no" for an answer. You are the lifeblood of one of the most, if not the most, universally despised industries in America. You are paying the guy to show up at your door and call you a douchebag.
Nationwide, the telemarketing industry consumes a ludicrous amount of each dollar it collects ostensibly on behalf of charities. Take California, for example:
More than a third of California charity telemarketing campaigns sent less than 20 cents on the dollar to the charities during 2007, the most recent year on record. Those campaigns and a smaller number of charity auctions and concerts raised $93 million for commercial fundraisers, and just $3 million for the charities.
In 76 of those campaigns, California charities got no money at all.
Why does this frankly fraudulent practice continue? Well, for a few reasons. One, serious enforcement action against bogus charities and their money-sucking telemarketers is so rare that it's very notable when it happens. More often, government agencies simply force bogus charities and crooked telemarketers to shut down — which simply allows them, in classic telemarketer style, to re-open under a new name. Take this recent FTC action in California, for example.
Among the groups singled out by the FTC as sham nonprofit organizations were three fundraising groups from Santa Ana. The government said the groups raised $19 million from 2005 to 2008 but turned over only 5% of the money to legitimate charities.
Most of the money raised by the Santa Ana groups instead went to telemarketers contracted to make solicitation calls and into the pockets of company executives and staff members, the agency said, and for outings, such as trips to Hawaii and Las Vegas.
The groups — the American Veterans Relief Foundation, the Coalition of Police and Sheriffs and the Disabled Firefighters Fund, all located at the same address — agreed to a settlement in which they did not acknowledge wrongdoing. They were fined $19 million, but the FTC waived the penalty because of inability to pay.
The groups could not be reached for comment — their phone numbers had been disconnected or were not taking messages.
The fundraisers' attorney, Robert Moest of Santa Monica, said the groups didn't pay more to charities because they incurred high costs.
"Telephone solicitors are just not a very effective mechanism for raising money," he said.
Moest said the groups settled because they didn't have the funds to mount a defense. "The organizations are being dissolved and the individuals won't be doing work with charities anymore," he said.
Moest ought to be happy here, because he scored a walk-away for his clients. Of course, with the FTC, he's not playing against the varsity. A competently run government investigation would chase down the money to Moest's clients, through any fraudulent transactions they used to hide it, and would result in their indictment on a raft of federal charges. Instead, they walk away with the money in their pocket until next time — and in a great many cases, there will be a next time.
Why else does it happen? Well, second of all, it's the fault of the charities. Charities that are willing to take twenty-five cents of each dollar you donate, and let the other seventy-five cents fall into the coffers of telemarketers, hold you and your money in contempt. Their willingness to grasp a little money in a deceitful way at the expense of perpetuating an overwhelmingly fraudulent industry is at the core of the problem here. If you treated this tactic with the revulsion it deserves, and inflicted the social consequences upon them that it deserves, it would stop.
Third, it's your fault. And by "you" I mean those of our readers who give money in response to telemarketing solicitations. You are like the one moron out of 10,000 email recipients who buys the herbal penis-enlarging product — you make a crooked, intrusive industry possible and profitable.
Are there exceptions? Sure. For instance, my college — and, very likely, yours — uses unpaid students to call to beg for money. This is still annoying, but it's not like I'm putting money in a telemarketer's pocket. The students would be off building bongs or writing papers about how Mao invented gravity if they were not usefully tasked. Plus, in the case of humanities majors, the practice in begging for money is excellent training. There are also a precious few charities that use only volunteers to call you for donations, and a few others who are able to boast very high collection rates and very low telemarketing expense rates. When you give to these, you are still perpetuating a system in which assholes think it is socially acceptable to intrude into your home to demand money. But at least you are not handing most of your money to people who con old people and annoy you for a living.
If you can't confirm, through reasonable diligence, that the people calling fall within one of those rare exceptions, then do yourself — and society — a favor. Tell them "I don't donate to charities that telemarket." Be prepared to sever your relationship with the charity as a consequence for their telemarketing. Send them an email telling them that you used to donate, but now that they are telemarketing, you no longer will.
If enough people do it, charities will rethink their contemptible alliance with the telemarketing industry, and may be moved to detach that fat, slick parasite from their sides.
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