Harassing the Elderly for Charity: A Familiar and Dangerous Pattern


February 29, 2016; WDAF-TV (Kansas City, MO)

Jose Martinez had a charity problem, one that finally drew the attention of Fox 4 Problem Solvers in Missouri after months of multiple charity solicitation calls. It did not matter that he was on the no-call list, or that he was 84 years old and on a fixed income. Joanne Ruble, his daughter, happened across a donation slip for the West Central Missouri Fraternal Order of Police and remonstrated with her father, who had made three donations of $90 the previous month. He says the solicitors “just insist.”

“Even though he appreciates everything the police do for them, he just really can’t afford it,” said Ruble. So she called the number on the donation form (which turned out to be out of order) and she tried writing letters of protest to the police, but still the calls came.

Martinez thought he was talking directly with a police officer, but the calls were, as you can imagine, being made by a professional telemarketing fundraising operation, Community Financial Services, hired by the FOP. That operation keeps 60 cents on the dollar. A CFS spokesperson denied having employees misrepresent themselves, but they don’t reveal that they are paid solicitors unless they are asked.

Professor Brent Never, who teaches nonprofit leadership at the University of Missouri Kansas City says this can be a problem: “I think it’s important that nonprofits think clearly about what would happen if people think they’ve been duped. That is clearly a risk that nonprofits face when they do this.” He adds that the fact that callers may think they are talking to the police is particularly problematic, since their position of power may make saying “no” especially difficult.

Last year, the FOP received $1700 in donations from the call center, which it used for programs like “Shop with a Cop,” which provides toys for underprivileged children. So Mr. Martinez paid $270 in one month—with $162 of that going to the call center and the rest going to a child in need.

We see this kind of harassment fundraising targeting the elderly and vulnerable going on all over the country in the name of vets, police leagues, and other first responders. An article NPQ published in 2013 reviewed the results of an investigation done by the Center for Investigative Reporting showing just such tactics being employed by Michigan-based telemarketer Associated Community Services. Here is a description of what the Iowa attorney general found:

Those that gave 20 or more times were 69 or older. The man who gave most often is in his eighties. In just over one year, he gave 38 times to 13 charities. On six occasions, he gave twice in one day. Another one of those profiled is a 72-year-old blind woman living solely on Social Security. She described a call in which she was asked to contribute to children suffering from hair loss. When she tried to decline, the solicitor suggested that she did not care enough about the plight of these kids. She ended up giving $10, out of which $8.25 was retained by ACS.

These practices have become somewhat emblematic of the fundraising done by telemarketers on behalf of charity. The UK is experiencing a serious regulatory crackdown in response to similar problems there, but the effects of the crackdown are affecting more than just the bad actors. Is that necessary in the United States, or is it time for the nonprofit sector to stand up and insist upon better standards of practice on penalty of being exposed?—Ruth McCambridge

  • simonejoyaux

    Ruth, be very carefully. Do not conflate inappropriate solicitations (e.g., misrepresenting who you are) with soliciting the appropriate people. The average age of a donor in the U.S. is 60 years old. That’s because that’s when we are no longer acquiring. That’s when we have money. Acquiring younger donors means looking at 50-year olds. That’s always the case. Before 60, people are acquiring paying debt, supporting their kids. Later — around 60 — is the average age of a donor.

    The issue is how frequently we solicit. How we solicit. The stories we tell. It’s appalling that anyone would browbeat someone into giving a gift. That’s awful and competent, decent charities cry out against that. And if a charity received two gifts in one day from a donor – the good charity would call and find out if it was a mistake.

    • ruth

      Simone -I am not talking in this piece about most fundraising. this piece is specifically about telemarketers that call the same people repeatedly in a harassing manner. The pattern is particularly marked in relation to fundraising for first responder causes. The full investigation done by the Center for Investigative Reporting a few years ago (link in newswire) was a devastating view of systemic violations of good practice in that industry. These give us all a bad name.

      • simonejoyaux

        Yes, indeed, Ruth. But I want to make very very very very sure that the people reading this article do NOT think that the problem is age. I’m repeatedly stunned at the lack of knowledge that so many fundraisers have…. including multiple asks, average age of donors, etc. etc. We are a field that is far too mediocre in its knowledge and I love NPQ too much not to periodically add something that I fear might just perhaps possibly but not usually confuse some reader.

        • ruth

          makes sense! Thanks Simone.

  • Sharon Charters

    Apart from the concerns about targeting the elderly, the practice of using third party fundraisers that take 60% and more of the contribution.should be made illegal. It is particularly disgusting that these companies are being used by the Police.

  • simonejoyaux

    I completely disagree with you, Sharon. It costs more to acquire a new donor (or customer) than it does to retain one. It’s estimated to cost 10 times more to acquire than retain. That’s just like acquiring a new customer for Apple or anything else. So why should NGOs be punished for acquisition costs? It’s the retention that must happen.

    And, unfortunately, NGOs are very bad at donor retention. The average year-on-year donor retention in the U.S. is 43%. And 7 out of 10 first-time donors don’t give a second gift. That’s the real tragedy. Lousy relationship building by NGOs once they’ve acquired donors.

    I have no problem with a good telemarketing firm – who doesn’t push a charitable gift – but rather treats people with respect and kindness, charging the appropriate costs for acquisition, and that can include 60% of the gift. And then the NGO does the work properly to retain.