Story 1. The Daily Mail’s recent investigation revealed that charity fundraising agents employ aggressive techniques, harassing everyone, even people with dementia in order to score a donation. The DM trumpets a revolting story of how one lovely old woman, 92-year-old Olivia Cooke, was killed by cold calling.
Story 2. All these charities have ‘robust’ measures in place, none of these charities ‘tolerate’ unethical call practices, all these charities have elaborate systems to ensure their telephone fundraising agents comply with the ‘highest standards’ of practice, none of them knew what was going on, all of them are ‘outraged’ and will get to the bottom of this… (see here, for example)
Point 1: Something does not quite add up.
Question 1: Which conclusion is worse? That charities all know exactly how cold-call fundraising campaigns function, and yet make a calculated compromise? That it is largely the charities who dictate a game in which call agencies must deliver the greatest bang for the buck – an equation doomed to sideline ethical concerns? Or that nobody knew the path that was being taken in their names (conveniently, in that case, all we need to do is change paths by hiring a different agency)?
Answer 1: No answer to those questions gets rid of the queasy feeling that more of the public now thinks of us in terms usually reserved for celebrities who get caught cheating on their spouses.
Point 2. We are all in this together. Trust is the primary precondition for the aid world.
Story 3: The aftermath has been predictable. Now, the industry trots out sincere handwringing, apologies and pledges for investigations/change. Now, announcements to stop using cold call tactics and a new supporter pledge to behave better. Now, the politicians, fundraising industry and aid business have jumped on the bandwagon of salvation. Tough measures will be taken! Abuse will be stamped out! A new morality will rule the day because it turns out humanitarians – like the politicians and bankers in opposition to whom we routinely define our goodness – need a new morality.
Question 2. The question isn’t whether NGOs should wean themselves from cold calling or establish confidence-building supporter pledges. The question is why supporter promises, a relatively ancient, tried-and-true practice, were not in place long ago. The question is why cold calling is ever used to raise money for humanitarian ends.
Answer 2 (literal version): Decisions were taken not to make a supporter promise. Decisions were taken to ignore the ethical concerns around cold calling in order to deliver on cash.
Answer 2 (simple version): We have large headquarters and we have massive needs to fulfill – a globe of human suffering no less –and that costs money.
Answer 2 (complex version): The incentives in a supply-driven aid system emphasize financial bottom lines over operational effectiveness.
Answer 2 (deep version): Across many dimensions of our work, the humanitarian has a vested interest in believing that ends justify means.
Main Point: The Daily Mail – and we should expect as much – almost defines the “shark kills surfer” school of journalism. Shock sells news. Little old ladies with Alzheimer’s became the story. So little old ladies become the problem and then drive the solution. In whipping up the lurid tale of our fallen humanitarian nobility, the media buried the greater imperative. A focus on the extremities of harassment veils the banality of aid’s hard-fought principles being eroded by the business of self-interest.
Story 4: Where have we heard this saga of disenchantment before? Just about everywhere.