Tuesday 12 November 2013

My run-in with the boiler-room charity, or: Why I no longer support Battersea Cats & Dogs Home and never will again

Let's face it, I'm exactly the kind of middle-class type who is perfect for supporting charities. It's "give back" and all that, and I'm happy to. I'm a "friend" of the Imperial War Museum, I hand in old stuff at Oxfam shops (mostly books and CDs), I usually empty my coin wallet into a collection box (did that just yesterday at the train station), I donate to the poppy appeal and keep losing my poppy after about three days so I'm basically spending every November replacing (and paying for) the poppy that I just lost.

I'm also happy to donate when a friend or fellow writer or trans* person is in financial trouble - helping fund a cat's operation, buying a much-needed laptop, and trying to get a trans* guy and his girl home. All things I've done, am happy to do and will do again. I'm also giving to veterans' charities (from helping fund a vets' dinner at Bletchley Park to donating cash to the RAF vets charity, even though two generation ago, they bombed my home city to hell).

Now, I normally don't really talk about all that stuff, because the last I want to do is brag about it. (There's also kind of the vague guilt that I could/should give more.)

So last week, I was called up at home by a prominent cats- and dogs-related London charity. (Yes, the big one.) It wasn't the charity itself, but they'd outsourced it to some other place.

So the guy calls me and starts a chat about how much we love animals. And that due to the poor economy, they have so many more cats now that need feeding and money and care. And I try to tell him I don't have time and I love cats and yes, one day I want to get one and might get it from there. And then he starts asking me for more money. I tell him I'm comfortable with the amount I'm giving a year (just under £150 in total). And he keeps telling me how he understand, but just one pound would make SUCH A DIFFERENCE TO ALL THOSE POOR KITTIES. And I tell him I'm okay with the amount I'm giving them because I'm actually possibly about to lose my job, so cranking up my monthly outgoings is the last thing that makes sense now. And he's all like, he understands, but WON'T I THINK OF THE POOR KITTIES.

And I'm starting to get annoyed. Mostly to get him off the phone and back to work, I agree to increasing my monthly donation. And he goes into the most effervercent praise about how I'm an angel and HOW I'M SAVING ALL THOSE POOR KITTIES. You'd have thought I'd single-handedly brokered peace in Syria.

So, yes, the guy was really good hitting all my buttons. GIFTED salesman. Tenacious. Bubbly. Lovely voice. Great blabber. Gift of the gob, as they say in Britain.

And I put the phone down and I'm fuming with anger.

Because what just happened? Somebody completely steam-rollered me, cold-calling me at home, while I was working, not taking "no" for an answer about a dozen times, hitting every emotional trigger I had and he could reach, talking me into doing something I didn't want to do, and had stated I didn't want to do.

For about a week, I kept rationalising the negative feeling of having been manipulated as "hey, it's good for the poor kitties". It's charity, right. In a way, that gives them the moral high ground, right?

Honestly, wrong.

Charity is something I do because a) I have the spare cash, b) I identify with the cause, but mostly c) it's my own godsdamned decision. And I'm not letting anybody take that decision away from me. It's the difference between giving a gift and being mugged in an alley. The latter leaves kind of a sour taste in my mouth.

That taste got so bad that I just logged into my online bank account and cancelled the direct debit entirely. Instead of talking me into upping my donation, they got me to cancel and I will never be back.

And honestly, I feel better. Mostly because today I put the same amount into the Haiyan-related collection box at Oxfam, in cash, and then bought a street musician lunch. Neither of them will call me boiler-room scam type and pressure me to give more. None of them pushed my buttons and manipulated me into doing something I expressly stated several times I was unwilling to do.

I don't respond well to getting pressured and/or guilt-tripped. I once made the mistake of texting £3 to the Syria appeal for "a warm blanket" - that heart-breaking advertising ON EVERY TRAIN in London. The problem with donate-texting? They have your phone number, and BOY ARE THEY USING IT. For WEEKS and MONTHS afterwards, I had perfectly nice Syria-appeal-related people on the phone at ALL HOURS of the day, trying to give me "updates" on how my money was being used (yeah, like I gave millions rather than a measly three quid). I told them I was at work, had no time to talk, really COULD NOT TALK RIGHT NOW ... and they just kept calling back.

I asked them to take me off their list. They kept pressing.

Finally, I had enough and told them flat-out that I was getting really angry and would NEVER again donate to their charity if they call me EVER again. (And tell all my friends.)

That did it. Blessed silence. No more updates on how my £3 would be spent.

What I find so upsetting, in a way, and what really pisses me off, is that it's disrespectful. I'm an adult, I've made an adult decision to donate a certain amount of money to charity. And these same charities seem, by some perverse mechanism, have turned into sharks to whom a donation is blood in the water: Here's some soft-hearted asshole, let's SKIN THEM ALIVE.

I'd love for somebody to do an actual study on many people these cold-calling high-pressure tactics alienate and how much money charities lose that way versus how much they make in the short term. For example, I would have been happy to donate to the cats and dogs home for the rest of my life. That's forty or maybe fifty years of £150 a pop.

I'll definitely continue as a £50-a-year "friend" of the Imperial War Museum. But they've never called me. They send me a quarterly magazine, and I get free entry. Nobody gets pissed off, everybody is respectful. It's win-win.

Meanwhile, I'll be donating cash only.

Update: Emailed them my complaints, received a phone call immediately with a personal apology. Case close. 


  1. Well said. I have the exact same problem with the Ottawa Humane Society, and I'm one phone call away from that same reaction. They don't get it, do they?

    1. I think if we cancel and tell them why, it might get through.

  2. This isn't an uncommon occurrence. What used to be 'relationship management' - the quarterly newsletter, the occasional phone call, the thank you for your donations - have, for the larger 10% of charities, turned into a fund-raising escalator. This is where they have ambitions of moving all donors onto the next step of giving i.e. giving more.
    If, for example, 10% give more and 5% drop out entirely then the overall income still goes up. Unscrupulous folk in fundraising and marketing can write off those who drop out as 'uncommitted' to the cause. Which in my view is totally insulting.
    Where possible I try to give to small, local, charities where my donations are likely to have a greater impact and not used for overly excessive corporate functions.

    1. Interesting thought - and yes, makes sense from a purely corporate standpoint. Increase "yield per sucker" as it were. I bet it's an internal measure. I think I'm firmly in the "local charity" camp now as well. I also sometimes make one-off online donations to things like the ICRC - they are way too big to hassle me directly and they do a great job.

  3. The nice thing about having worked in sales and getting trainings is learning how these calls work and how they are scripted. Thanks to that I've become very disrespectful on the phone, interrupt their script and just blow them off. Works. I even had some guys hang up on me without even saying good-bye.

    I donate, mostly in cash (I don't support the church but I do donate into the collections for the renovation and preservation of local churches). I also just did some financial stuff and for one of those just put in a German charity (The German Cancer Society) as beneficiary. They don't know about it and they won't know about it until I'm dead. I don't need recognition for that.

    I prefer small local charities (like the local women's shelter) where I think more of the money does something and is not spend on a marketing team and some huge marketing action or on some phone company harassing people.

  4. I hate those tactics so much. The school where I got my graduate degree is terrible about it; last winter when I was unemployed I had a call from someone who was trying so hard to convince me to give them $150, and when I kept saying I couldn't she kept pleading and saying she understood it was just they needed the money so much, they're a public university working with a lot of inner-city kids and everything's expensive. And I said no, I *really can't*, I don't have a job, I can barely pay my bills, and she said she understood and in that case maybe I could just do $75 instead (by comparison: that would keep my apartment heated for a month or buy me food for a few weeks)... I think I said no two or three more times and then hung up when there was apparently no "take no for an answer" option in the script. Their number is in my phone now as "[schoolname] wants money" so if they try again (which they do, every few months) I won't waste any precious minutes of my life talking to them. :/

  5. Any charity that calls me with that kind of pressure gets taken off my list of charities I donate to. And I tell them. It took a few pressured donations (Foster Children's Fund, or something, those clipboard people on street corners) for me to start getting really annoyed. Also, political parties. Now I only donate to a few select charities, including my favourite no-kill cat shelter (who do the donation thing the right way - newsletter, and occasional shout out).

    Unfortunately my work does a huge thing with the United Way, and there is a lot of pressure to do a direct donation off of every paycheque during their campaign time (which seems to be Oct-Nov). It makes me absolutely furious, as the emails just keep coming because they're all 'work-related'.

    1. P.S. a bit of tape around the bottom of the pin on a poppy will keep it from falling off your shirt/jacket/etc.

  6. Horrible tactics! I added my number to TPS (telephone preference service I think) years ago and that seems to stop the majority of calls - and answering the rest with a polite 'hello', followed by a (very) rapid reduction in politeness for cold callers has pretty much stopped the rest.
    What confuses me is my parents also added their number to TPS but still get all the calls. And dad is starting to sound a lot like Victor Meldrew when dealing with them (odd given he never watched the series!). The Cat Protection people hit my blacklist after listening to a particularly bad call a while back - it didn't seem to matter what dad said - including that they are pensioners and cannot afford to pay more - they kept on pushing. Dad was fuming by the end and I think stopped giving them any money as a result.

  7. Oh I'm so tired of Pink October for breast cancer awareness. I have had many family members die of cancer and NONE of them were breast cancer. It sort of just pisses me off that one type hollers for attention above the rest. Then there's the entire Komen Foundation vs family planning fiasco from last year. It's become a charity that is just interested in supporting itself. I want to see a statement on how much of that money actually goes to research.

    Even on the plan to GRL one of the flight attendants was wearing a pink suit and collected money for breast cancer.