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How and Why I Turn Down Charity Telemarketers

JLP at All Financial Matters asked us how we turn away charity cold calls. Honestly, it’s never been that hard for me. As a younger person I’ve only been getting these calls for a few years, around the time I starting giving regularly (age 18).

The first way I turn down charity telemarketers is by focusing my giving with one organization (though I occasionally give to a few others I like). It works both locally and internationally, provides microloans, vaccines, health care, women’s business assistance, education…all sorts of things I approve of and would like to further. And it has an impressive ratio of programs vs. administrative spending. It’s been given 4 stars by Charity Navigator (highest rating).

So I turn down other organizations more easily because I know I have someone I can trust to use my money in ways I like. If you don’t have one, consider starting research now.

The second is that I’ve been reading Trent Stamp’s Take and other charity-related resources for a while now. Trent Stamp was, until a few months back, the guy who headed up Charity Navigator, a great resource for finding out how your charity uses the money you give. You’ll have to figure out if the mission and programs are worthwhile, but it’ll help you find out how much of your money really goes to those programs.

Back in November, Trent posted the story of a “charity” for paralyzed veterans which spent over 85% of the money it raised on telemarketing. So if you gave them $20, only $3 of that would go to any real programs. They raised $5 million…which means $750,000 went to programs (and other administration). But $4.25 million went to telemarketing.

Sometimes the charities don’t even exist. Sometimes they’re even trying to steal your credit card information. Not cool.

From my reading, I’d say that a lot of the either fraudulent or just plain irresponsible charities focus on veterans, police and firefighters, and sick kids. They play on peoples patriotism and everyone’s concern for sick kids. So be particularly wary in vetting those before giving to that type.

Knowing all this, it’s very easy for me to say “Thanks, I’ll look into it. Have a good day.” without feeling a qualm. If it sounds interesting, I’ll start looking around. If Charity Navigator doesn’t cover them, it has good tips for doing your own research. They also have tips for dealing with charity telemarketers. You can get form 990s (showing income and spending) for most charities at And those forms will help you see what was spent on salaries vs. programs vs. rent vs. other things. The salaries of the top members (CEOs and whatnot) have to be included. But for the bigger ones, Charity Navigator has done your work already.

I think the best thing to do is find a few really good charities and stick with them. If you want to give to a random charity on the spur of the moment, at least make it the spur of the moment + a little research. Be wary of soundalikes. And don’t be afraid to turn down telemarketers. That doesn’t make you a bad person. Look at it this way, you’re giving them more time to call people who might donate money…

I’ll be following this up later with a post about responding to the current crisis in Myanmar. For now, let me just say that giving to any agency that calls you, especially ones which have been founded just for this crisis (as some were for the tsunami and Katrina) is not your best bet for helping people. I need to do some more research on what is. Until then, look into organizations that help people worldwide and have been doing so for years. They probably have the best grasp on how to manage these situations, when to send aid and when to wait for the government to lift its restrictions.

{ 5 trackbacks }

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PT May 14, 2008 at 11:19 am

We do most of our giving through our Church. But I cancelled the home phone 7 years ago so I don’t get these calls.

I do get asked at convenience stores to participate in things and I simply offer up a nice, “not today, thank you.” I think it comes across considerate and lets them know that you do give…just not today.

As for the current “big” events, I usually just go to the red cross website.

Vered - MomGrind May 14, 2008 at 11:55 am

These are great tips. Thank you. It’s easier to me to say “no” when I can explain, that we already decided on our annual giving budget. And as you say, what goes into that giving budget gas been well-researched. To me, spur-of-the-moment giving is just as problematic as unplanned spending.

Momma @ Tales From The Road Less Traveled May 14, 2008 at 3:28 pm

I think that this is a very timely post, as the charity cold calls will be/are picking up due to the economic stimulus packages being mailed. They’ll be working extra hard to get their cut.

Thanks for the great information.

deepali May 14, 2008 at 8:40 pm

Good post. I often find that I prefer to donate to an organization that I feel I have a personal connection to. Either I know someone who works there, I’ve observed a program, or I’ve called them up and chatted with people there.

As for Burma – I’m happy to provide some good orgs to donate to! I know people who have worked in Burma or with the Burmese people for years. The problem with the Burma situation is that our usual suspects (Oxfam, ICRC) aren’t being allowed in…

Christine May 14, 2008 at 10:18 pm

That’s a great website (the charity navigator one). Thanks for the link!

Dad May 15, 2008 at 5:40 pm

Also, thanks for the website. Telemarketers can make it hard if you want to remain polite. I’ve heard many bad stories of fraudulent ‘charities’ that appear at every disaster. We recently had an article in the local newspaper about a ‘charity’ to help injured firemen and their families. The state volunteer fireman’s association (most of our fire departments are volunteer) released an official statement that they are unaware of any benefit that any of their members have received from this organization. What really gets me is when they try to push you into a ‘small’ donation. If they ask $50 at first, if you turn them down, they say “can’t you afford even $25 or any amount?” I have to remain firm. If they won’t give up in a few minutes, I simply say Good bye and hang up. These are professional telemarketers. I’ll treat them *at least* as politely as they treat me. We’ve had charities we’ve turned down send us ‘over-due’ billing statements for pledges we never made. One was from a church organization that I new a little about. I wrote the head of that organization a scathing letter about the bad name his group was giving their religious cause by deceitful financial practices. I never heard from them again.

Like you, I like to choose in a period of calm and lack of emotion, where I’m giving. I used to be vulnerable to emotional appeals and had to harden myself. Now I’m confident where my money goes.

plonkee May 16, 2008 at 12:12 pm

I no longer have a problem with these, as long as I extract myself from the conversation quickly.

Good organisations, that want to work with people for a long time tend not to antagonise the local government/controlling organisation. It’s self-defeating and can, in some cases, make things worse for the local population. If you want to help people in Burma, you need to find out who is working with the Burmese government, and give to them (galling, but true).

Living off dividends & passive income May 16, 2008 at 3:18 pm

i was in india in the 90’s when a major earthquake killed 25,000 in a rural area. clothes & blankets that were sent from abroad ended up being sold on the streets.
I imagine that the money went into someone’s pockets and never reached the intended victims.

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