This summer I had the unfortunate experience of working for Telefund, a company that claims to be an ally to progressive causes. I thought it was a win-win situation--I get to make a little money and help out progressive causes at the same time!
But my brief experience at this company (six weeks at the Santa Barbara office) has left me feeling hypocritical, cynical, and downright outraged. I cannot believe that progressive groups have gotten themselves in bed with Telefund due to the company's deceptive and inconsiderate attitudes toward progressive supporters. More importantly, I am appalled at Telefund's anti-union and altogether anti-progressive stance in regards to it's employees. I am very fortunate in being able to leave my job and say no to poor treatment. Others are not so lucky.
Below I have posted a letter I am writing to every progressive group I know that raises money through Telefund. I hope that you will take the time to read it. I am even more hopeful that you will also contact these groups, and Telefund, and let them know what you think!
Dear "Progressive Group":
(These groups include, but are not limited to: the DNC, Mother Jones, Sierra Club, Natural Resources Defense Council, Amnesty International, Southern Poverty Law Center, Environmental Defense Fund, IRC, American Foundation for AIDS Research, etc. If you get a call from one of these groups, please ask who is really calling. It would be a shame if most of your donation went to lining the pockets of these anti-progressive corporate types! But be nice to the person on the phone!)
My name is Todd Foose and I am writing to you now because I am very concerned about your relationship with a company known as Telefund. This organization portrays itself as a friend to progressive causes that simply raises money to help progressive groups achieve their goals. I have learned through both firsthand experience as well as through on-line research that this company is deceptive in its practices, anti-progressive in its employment policies and ultimately harmful to the progressive movement as a whole.
I have contributed both my time and money to your organization in the past. I am letting you know now that I will not contribute any more of either until either 1) your relationship with this company is terminated or 2) Telefund adopts progressive practices towards its employees and stops using deceptive tactics while it acts as your voice to your own supporters and donors. I have come to this conclusion after spending a little more than a month as a Telefund employee in Santa Barbara, California.
First off, let me say that I understand completely how difficult fundraising efforts can be. I know that non-profits are especially hard hit in a tough economy. I'm sure that you entered into your current relationship with Telefund because any extra money in your coffers probably seems to good to refuse. I am aware that, financially speaking, you get a short term net gain by contracting out some of your fundraising efforts to a company like Telefund. But I am writing as a concerned supporter because I believe that in the long run your relationship with this company is not only unethical and hypocritical, but ultimately self-defeating for your organization and the progressive movement.
I will begin by describing the inconsiderate and deceptive and often unethical practices that Telefund engages in while it is in direct contact with the men and women who are the real backbone of the progressive movement. I believe that the damage Telefund does to your organization's reputation goes far beyond the annoyance of constant phone solicitations (apparently always during dinner).
Inconsiderate and Deceptive Contacts With Supporters
I'm not sure if it's required by law or simply by their contacts with your organization, but in the greeting of every Telefund script is the line: "I'm a paid solicitor from Telefund, Inc., calling on behalf of Progressive Group." The first thing that every caller learns on their first training shift is that you never read this part of the script. It is never a supervisor who tells you this--this is always delegated to a regular caller who has volunteered to train you. The reasons for the ommission of being a paid fundraiser and not having management be the ones to tell you to omit it are obvious. They also lead your supporters to believe that the person they are talking to is YOUR ORGANIZATION ITSELF. This is what leads to damage to your reputation.
Callers are under constant pressure to keep their "yes" numbers up. (I will say more about this in the next section about anti-progressive employment practices.) At first glance, this isn't a bad thing. We want these supporters to say yes to donating to a good cause. But it leads many callers to log the more polite refusals to give a donation as being in need of a callback. Many supporters are called numerous times because of this fact.
Even if a supporter says "No I can't help you at this time" or "I have nothing to give" or even "I was just diagnosed with cancer," the caller is instructed not to let up. The basic training is that you SAY "Oh, I understand that...x, y or z BUT..." and go right back to a part of the script. Very rarely, this method might result in a donation. More often than not, however, it leaves the supporter on the other end of the phone saying things like, "No you DON'T UNDERSTAND if you're still asking me for money." And the worst part is, they are right. If you and I were talking like ordinary people, and you asked me for money, and I told you I didn't have any to give you, and then you talked for a while longer and then asked me for money again, I would quite rightfully be angry at you for not listening to me, and even angrier for saying you understood the first time. This is how it makes people feel about your organization when they are called on the phone in this manner.
Calls are made even in the midst of important progressive events. For instance, just this evening we were on the phones calling people on behalf of the American Foundation for AIDS Research during the president's televised address on healthcare. This brought in almost nothing in the way of donations, but upset many people who couldn't believe the inconsiderate timing.
Callers are instructed to tell your supporters that "every dollar" they donate goes straight to your organization. I'm sure that this is technically true. They make out their checks or their credit card payments to your organization. However, just a bit of research turned up the fact that Telefund keeps 65% of the money for itself. Some people we call are finally catching onto this fact. They'll even come out and ask if it would be better for them to go to the website and donate. Truthfully, the answer is yes. But as a caller, you are warned to never mention donating in other ways. You are warned never to mention the fact that Telefund is paid a hefty percentage of the proceeds of the fundraising drive (even if it's upfront and technically not from THESE donations). I suppose they want you to present people with a scenario in which paid solicitors still get paid even with 100% of the money going to the non-profit group. Most people find this an insult to their intelligence if they bother to think about it at all. This is because Telefund is not interested in helping your organization. It is interested only in its profits (and not in sharing those profits with employees).
As I mentioned, other ways of donating are always to be discouraged. Even if the person says "Oh I have that organization's envelope right here, I'll just use that to send in my donation and save a tree," callers are instructed to tell the supporter to instead wait for a new envelope (one that is, of course, coded to give credit to Telefund) instead of being environmentally friendly. This is another practie that should irk progressive-minded organizations such as your own.
The end result of these and other practices is that more and more people come to distrust your organization and re-think their financial and, in my opinion, more importantly, their volunteer support of it. The scripted, unnatural and unresponsive conversations your supporters have with callers who are told to portray themselves as being FROM your organization leads to a great deal of donor fatigue, cynicism and eventually apathy.
There is no greater danger to your organization and the progressive movement as a whole than to turn more and more people off to these causes and to the idea of getting involved in general. Many of them feel they are being punished for having contributed in the past because "Now I get calls all the time" and "It seems that all your organization cares about is money!" (This is not helped by the fact that all Telefund cares about is, in fact, money. We're told not to engage with your supporters about their concerns on other issues or spend too much time helping them figure out how to volunteer or anything like that--we're just supposed to raise money so if they don't donate, then move on!)
I am also writing because I am appalled at the anti-progressive ways in which Telefund treats its employees. The most egregious abuse in this area happened at the Denver office. I would refer you to this article which describes how Telefund went about firing anyone who thought about forming a union:
There are other articles on the web that detail the same story. I'm sure Telefund would say that these are just the ramblings of a few disgruntled employees. I'm sure they will say the same about this former employee. But now that I've seen their practices up close and in person, I find it easy to believe the claims made in the article I referenced above.
But being anti-union is not the only anti-progressive stance that Telefund takes with its workers. Here is a list of the unfair and/or anti-progressive labor practices that are engaged in by Telefund:
Anti-Progressive Labor Practices
Telefund is one of those employers that President Obama mentioned in his speech tonight as not doing right by their employees by offering some form of health benefits. No healthcare package is offered to any employee regardless of the number of hours that employee works. One wonders if Telefund will raise money for groups opposed to a mandate for employers who can afford to, to do so.
Telefund does NOT provide reliable hours to its employees. It had been the practice in the past to over-schedule callers for a shift, meaning that more people were scheduled to work than there were seats available. Even people who arrived for their shift on time could be sent home. (This is no longer the practice at the Santa Barbara office, though I wonder if it's simply due to the huge recent turnover in employees.) Furthermore, once people show up and have a seat for a shift, there is no guarntee they will finish it. If the office as a whole is not doing well, the shift supervisor can and often does simply send everyone home. The callers must log out and are not paid for the rest of their shift. Also, while I was at the Santa Barbara office, the entire place was shut down for a week due to a "system problem." No one could work or earn pay during that entire week. Hourly workers should not have to deal with the added stress of never really knowing how many hours they can expect to be paid for.
"Performance-Based Pay" is actually another name for depriving employees of earned bonuses and actually lowering their base pay rates after they've been calling for awhile. Telefund advertises higher average pay than it actually doles out. Here's how it works: Telefund claims that the top 60% of callers earn at least a $1/hour bonus. That 60% is determined by the pledge-per-contact rate. What they leave in the fine print (and never really explain) is that the bonus is forfeit for any of about ten different reasons. I spoke with one fellow caller who had done incredibly well on the pledge-per-contact rate--he raised more money than almost anyone there. Part of the reason for that is that he is very friendly on the phone and speaks more casually. He takes longer than most of us do on each call. Fewer people hang up on him. As a result, his "contacts per hour" number is actually quite a bit below the average. That's because he's GOOD at what he does. But in management's eyes, it was an excuse to deny him his bonus. On top of this, your "performance" is evaluated every 80 hours. At this time, they can (and often do) lower your base rate of pay, even if most of your statistical categories are improving. If ANY of your statistical categories have dipped, then that can be an excuse to cut your base hourly pay by as much as 50 cents an hour. People who are reliable employees who follow the feedback they are given should not be rewarded with a pay cut.
Performance statistics don't take into account the arbitrary nature of fundraising work. No, I'm not complaining because my performance was poor. I received at least some bonus pay on each paycheck. But the supervisors and management do not appreciate the amount of random chance in this job. They only look at numbers. I was once congratulated on a night when I had a great pledge-per-contact number. The reason for it was that three people stopped me as soon as I mentioned the group I was calling for and said "I can give you $100" (or more!) and they put it right on their credit card. I did nothing special. I barely did anything at all besides taking down a credit card number. But there was my supervisor beaming and telling me what a fine job I did. Of course, if you go 0-for-30 one night, that is obviously your fault, too, even if 15 of those people hang up on you the moment you get out the organization's name. Furthermore, feedback about the job you're doing is as haphazard as the calls themselves. If you were being polite to one supporter who says no, you're told you need to be more persistent. If someone listens in on another call, and a person hangs up, you're told to be more polite. The bottom line is that the supervisors always tell you to do something different than what you just did when you receive a "no," even if that same approach got you three yes's earlier.
Lastly, and most egregiously for a company that has raised money for a progressive labor group like Mother Jones, Telefund is, as I mentioned before, adamantly anti-union. Having listened to the stories of other employees, as well as having seen the deceptive employment practices myself, I made brief contact with an organizer at the CWA (Communications Workers of America) about what I would need to do to organize at my local office. I then spoke briefly about the idea with a few co-workers while on break, clocked out, on a shift this past weekend. When I came in on Tuesday, I received my performance review and was told I'd be paid 50 cents less per hour. The supervisor, as usual, took on a condescending tone about the reasons why. When I pointed out some of the problems in his logic and then went on to mention some of these other issues I've already addressed, he basically told me there was nothing I could do. That's when I quit. But then I told him I wanted to know the contact information for someone I could talk to about all these concerns I'm now voicing--because I was never and never would have been just an employee at Telefund--I'm a passionate member and supporter of many of the groups Telefund raises money for. He would not engage in any conversation at that point, he just kept repeating that I had to leave. He then hovered over me as I went to my station to pick up my things.
I remained outside on the public area we have our breaks in to try and talk to people about my union contacts. They were all highly interested and engaged in the conversation when the supervisor came down and started trying to intimidate me, standing just a few inches away and glaring at me. I couldn't help but laugh at him. I asked him if he wanted something. He said no. I asked if I could continue my conversation, which he wasn't apart of. He didn't move until I told him directly to move from my personal space in this public area. Finally he left.
Employees are too intimidated to even give their contact information to a union representative. In the incident I described above, I tried to get someone's contact information to pass along to the representative I spoke to. After the shift supervisor's little display, not one of them would put their name or even and e-mail down. I did have two people ask me if the organization had a web site, though, and I am hopeful that someone will contact them. But why should people working for a progressive fundraising organization be afraid of talking about forming a union? Labor is one of the critical pieces of the progressive puzzle. How can progressive groups get in bed with a union-busting and employee intimidating company like Telefund? Forget about what happened to me. The employees there deserve collective representation! No organization that calls itself progressive should contract out fundraising to a company that is so blatantly anti-union that no one will even put down their e-mail for a union organizer to contact him or her!
I apologize for the length of this letter. But I wanted to spell out clearly and definitively exactly why I have come to the decision that I have--to stop supporting your organization until it either gets out of bed with Telefund or until your group and others put pressure on Telefund to adopt truly progressive values in its practices. As it stands now, it's hard to take your organization seriously when it hands over its fundraising to a group that is run as if it's a neo-conservative-anti-labor-bottom-line-is-everything company like Telefund.
Todd A. Foose