When you answer the phone, you know right away from the extended moment of silence that it’s a telemarketer calling and you almost hang up. But then they ask if you care about helping women with breast cancer, or supporting firefighters’ families. So you give them a minute, because you’re a charitable person and you feel compelled to at least listen to their pitch. But I’m letting you off the hook with five good reasons to say “no” to these callers–and the exact words to say to them.
Number 5: These telemarketers are taking a cut–sometimes a huge cut–of your donation. Sadly, some cash-strapped charities sell their donor lists to for-profit telemarketers, figuring that the small percentage of donations they will receive is like “found money” and better than nothing, which is what they’d get without selling their donor list. These telemarketers may keep 75% or more of your donation. If you want to donate to the charity being represented by the telemarketers, do it through a site like Network for Good (which receives a 5% processing fee) or send the charity a check directly. And to prevent your name from being sold, ask the charities you donate to not to sell your name.
Number 4: The callers are counting on an emotional, not rational, reaction. The names of the organizations are often close to those of large, well-known charities so that they hopefully get the positive brand association you have with the larger organization. The mission they describe to you is focused on universally-beloved causes, like firefighters, police, sick kids or other vulnerable populations. What kind of a jerk would you be if you didn’t want to help those folks? Well, you can help those people without giving to telemarketers. So don’t let guilt get the best of you. Reputable charities don’t need to use pressure tactics.
Number 3: You have no good way to evaluate their work. A mission statement is simply an aspiration, it’s not an accomplishment. “Our mission is to help women who are diagnosed with breast cancer to access the best treatment possible.” Great mission statement. So tell me, how’s that going for you? How does the health of women you have helped compare to the health of women you haven’t helped? What specific services do you connect them with? How are you reaching out to the women who most need your help?
I don’t know if those are even the right questions to ask of a charity that purports to help women diagnosed with breast cancer, but my point is that it’s difficult to even think of good questions over a phone call, much less verify or evaluate the answers you get. Don’t ever let a charity sell you on a mission statement alone. A good mission statement does not equal a good charity. It’s about what they actually deliver. So if they sound interesting, ask for their Tax ID number and do some research on your own at Guidestar or Charity Navigator.
Number 2: Charities should be building a passionate base of year-round supporters who love and support them, not relying on last-minute holiday giving by strangers. If you’ve never heard of this charity, and never given to them before, it means they are “cold-calling” thousands of people just hoping to get a few who respond positively to their mission statement. But the strongest organizations cultivate donors over time by educating them about their work, inviting them to see their programs, building trust by delivering results and communicating about their challenges and needs. As a consequence, their donors come through year-round, and perhaps again in response to targeted year-end mailings. A charity that is relying on holiday telemarketing for donations seems to me like a charity that’s desperate for any money it can find–never a sign of a strong organization.
And the Number 1 Reason NOT to Give to Charity Telemarketers This Holiday Season: Giving to random charities distracts you from your true philanthropic priorities. Ah, there’s the rub. Even if you become convinced that it’s a legitimate charity doing great work with the majority of your donation going to firefighter’s families as promised, if firefighters isn’t your thing, you should stick to your guns. Or gun safety, if that’s your issue. Or local arts organizations, or homeless shelters, or whatever you care about. If your charity budget is limited, all the more reason to save those funds for the issues you care about.
And therein lies your response to the telemarketers. As they start to sell you on the importance of their cause, here’s what you say. “Thanks for your call but I have other philanthropic priorities.” Who can argue with that? Then hang up, guilt free.
For more on charities and telemarketing, see:
How and Why I Turn Down Charity Telemarketers a really nice post on the personal finance blog Finance for a Freelance Life
Five Best Questions to Ask Charity Telemarketers by the BBB’s Charity Information Network
Fend Off Charity Telemarketing During the Holidays by MSN Money
[Added 12/13: State Officials Warn Donors about Charities Fundraising Costs on The Business of Giving]