America’s Dirtiest Job: Nonprofit Telemarketer?

Should telemarketers really be despised? Blue Avocado readers share their experiences making telemarketing calls for their nonprofits.

America’s Dirtiest Job: Nonprofit Telemarketer?
5 mins read

Are telemarketers evil fiends who should be despised and tortured whenever possible?

So many people hate telemarketing calls that there are whole websites devoted to ways to torment and infuriate the people making those calls.

We asked Blue Avocado readers for their experiences as the wretched creatures:

“I was a music teacher,” said Gayle Holtman of Indianapolis, “and I needed something to do for the summer. I got this job in the basement [if this were a film, this is when the audience starts shouting: ‘Don’t go into the basement!’] and was given a stack of cards and told, ‘Just call these people.'”

Says another former telemarketer: “One call changed my life: I called this guy and he talked to me a little bit and then got off the phone. I called a week later and he ordered two subscriptions and said, ‘Anyone who can sell me over the phone I want to meet.’ That’s a pretty corny line, but I did go meet him, and he hired me to work at the Chamber of Commerce.”

Worst situation for one reader: “I was telemarketing for the symphony. My target was one season subscription per week. After two weeks I hadn’t sold a single one. I sucked. It was too depressing. I quit.”

At Center Stage Theater in Baltimore, Will Parquette didn’t have individual goals as a telemarketer, but his group met every night at 5:30 pm for a meeting to prep for calling. The group’s goal was $6,000 a night. Making 100 calls a night, it took Will four weeks before his first sale; that’s 1,000 phone calls before a success! (Maybe the rest of us should stop complaining about three rejections for grant proposals.) “The artistic staff would come in and talk to us about the shows so we felt connected and knew how to answer questions about the shows.”

Leah Pomerantz of Vancouver is something of a lifer: “I’ve been doing telemarketing as a staffperson or as a volunteer for 25 years.” Selling what? “Got started calling Jewish teenagers telling them that if they donated $10 to this Jewish organization they could go to a dance… I’ve sold many different fundraising things, like baked goods for schools and even vacuum cleaners.”

All our respondents said they gained hard-won, extremely valuable skills from telemarketing:

  • “The woman who hired me told me it was an opportunity to work on yourself and your communications skills. I took that to heart.”
  • “You have a script, but you can’t use it. You have to listen to the other person and, by listening, you know if you’re being too aggressive, or too passive.”
  • “I learned to distinguish between features and benefits. Like a feature of a mechanical pencil is that fresh lead comes out when I rotate the tip. The benefit is that I always have a sharp point.”
  • “You realize there is a variety of people out there you haven’t run into before.”
  • “I would get so discouraged. My boss said, ‘You’re going to make 10 calls to get one membership, so now you’re only nine calls away.'”

And what happens when an ex-telemarketer gets a telemarketing call?

  • “I’m particularly nice to telemarketers. I never hang up on them.”
  • “Sometimes I want to say, ‘Let me give you a few tips… do you know how you sound?'”
  • “I always say ‘good luck with your calls’ at the end of the conversation.”

Even though everybody claims to hate telemarketing calls, the reality is that thousands of people respond positively to them. It works! That’s why nonprofits continue to make the calls to explain their missions and ask for donations.

Thank you, Will, Leah, Gayle, and Anonymous. Now we know something about those mysterious, invisible folks on the other end of the phone line.

About the Author

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Blue Avocado is an online magazine fueled by a monthly newsletter designed to provide practical, tactical tips and tools to nonprofit leaders. A small but mighty team of committed social sector leaders produces the publication, enlisting content from a wide range of practitioners, funders, and experts.

Articles on Blue Avocado do not provide legal representation or legal advice and should not be used as a substitute for advice or legal counsel. Blue Avocado provides space for the nonprofit sector to express new ideas. Views represented in Blue Avocado do not necessarily express the opinion of the publication or its publisher.

37 thoughts on “America’s Dirtiest Job: Nonprofit Telemarketer?

  1. No, I am not and never will be a nonprofit telemarketer. But I can testify to being on the receiving end of these kinds of calls and how I handle them. I ask questions. I try to determine if the speaker is properly trained and especially if they know and value the mission beyond some script that they have been given. Many don’t even know if the charity they represent is a 501-c-3 … I might as well be talking Greek when I ask some. If the telemarketer is lame, I ask for his/her supervisor and repeat the questions. I scold them when needed, after telling them what I have done for the last 25 years of my life in nonprofit service. If and when I get a really well-trained and committeed caller, then I respond affirmatively to their request. So far, there have been very few. The others gladly removed me from their call list because no one wants to spend 10 mintues or more with someone they called who kept them tied up on the line without making a gift.

    I will say that the most convincing caller was a student at a college where my husband graduated, calling for the alumni society. This student knew, of course, the college and the professors … not a paid "outsider." We made a very generous gift when I asked if Professor Jameson was still there, and he readily said he had never heard of that teacher — the right answer. We just made up the name. Give that student an "A" for honesty, and the college a big ATTA_BOY for proper training.

    Do give the telemarketing companies a word of warning … it is silly and ineffective for them to hire employees with accents that clearly say "we are not from where you are." People respond to people like themselves, so these companies should hire in the geographic area they are calling, or strive for folks without heavy accents that could be "from anywhere." Besides, if I cannot understand the caller without a struggle … well, I’ll hang up.

    1. i’ll make another reply later today – as a manager of a call room of fundraisers, not marketers – but Cathy…your last paragraph is way out of line. i am in indianapolis, indiana, not necessarily the most melted of pots but in my time running call rooms i have had lots of people with accents. Indiana has a large influx of Africans who have lived in the city for a long time and can speak english fluently with that beautiful heavy afro-french snap. Indy has a great growing population of spanish speaking residents who communicate clearly, with an accent.

      my german wife, who used to do market research via phone while in undergraduate school, still has her accent after almost 4 years living here.

      i know what youre trying to say, Cathy. but really, watch what you say. if you, like you say, take the time to ask questions and see if someone knows what their calling about, you maybe wouldnt make such a statement.

      the call room should reflect the variation of the citizens that benefit from the organization.

      1. I agree with Cathy. About the accents, if I cannot understand you, I am not receiving your message. If the companies and organizations soliciting my money cannot understand the basics of verbal communication; then they do not get my money. Hire the people with the skills to be successful. It is basic business sense.

    2. Cathly L, I applaud your decision to never be a telemarketer. If you talk even remotely like you write, you’d utterly fail at telemarketing. If you have worked in nonprofit for 25 years, you must realize that they don’t always all the resources they need – sure they’d love to spend tons of money and time in training all the temps they hire and make sure they know every obscure detail about that organization, but from a cost and efficiency perspective that would be foolish. Failing that, they could ask their staff to stop all other work and become telemarketers so they can answer questions satisfactorily. When you worked in nonprofits, I am sure that you would have gladly done telemarketing for your organization rather than, god forbid, let an untrained temp or volunteer do it, right? And it’s really rude and wrong of you to scold someone for doing a job that you so openly admit you’d never do. I can’t believe someone who has worked in nonprofits has such an attitude. Thanks for doing your part to make the nonprofit sector slow, inefficient, stodgy and ineffective.

    3. As telemarketers are either volunteer or paid next to nothing, do everyone a favor and hang up immediately. Playing the callers, as you do, is one of the reasons I got out of npos. It’s not as cute as you seem to think.

      I lost my job because I was not going to do any telemarketing in order to raise funds, and do something more creative and much more fun all around. The Board wouldn’t hear of it, and the returns were insignificant.

      Man! you’re a piece of cake.

  2. Just because a telemarketer has an accent does not mean they are not “from where you are.” That is a poor misconception and an ill-advised caution for nonprofits or telemarketing companies because it is a form of discrimination. Also, just because someone has an accent does not mean that they cannot be understood–and if they can’t, it’s a matter of training not background. A nonprofit should strive for diversity at every level of operations and if a potential donor is put off by an accent–despite an effective approach–then you probably don’t want them to become a part of your organization in the first place.

  3. I too appreciate a good nonprofit telemarketer – one who is not full of false camaraderie and overly hearty gratitude for my last contribution. And I’m sympathetic to the fact that overall giving is down. But I can’t single handedly solve the financial issues of every charitable cause, no matter how much I might like to – and I have a terrible problem saying no.

    How about a script for those of us who are not comfortable with how best to deal with a telemarketer when we don’t want to give, are irritated that it’s the 10th call from that organization, don’t like the phone ringing at 8 am, resent the fact that their number was hidden, and really don’t want to spend the next 10 or 15 minutes on the phone. Should I listen politely to their entire pitch before saying no? Should I nicely say no thank you at the very beginning? Is it rude if I can tell it’s a computerized call and hang up before the person is on the line? Am I terrible person if I tell a perfectly reputable group ‘take me off your list’ because I have other causes I prefer? All too often I make a small donation so I can get off the phone, meaning they will soon be calling again!

  4. Cathy L seems like an ‘authority’ on the subject. Glad she was taken to task as some of her statements were rather misguided and even insulting. Woe betide the poor unsuspecting caller who gets HER on their list.

  5. I HATE TELEMARKETING, and I take it out on the people who make the calls. I know this is mis-placed hostility, but really, who likes getting those calls? I have two standard responses:

    1. Please give me your home phone number and I will call you at a time that is convenient for me to talk to you.

    2. Thank you for calling. I am putting your organization on my “do not give” list. I have a policy of NEVER giving ANY money to any group that calls me. I have signed up for every “do not call” list available. Since I am still getting calls, I have started a “do not give” list. Your organization, (name the organization), will never receive another donation from me. There are many options for those of us who like to support good charitable and political work. (Name of organization) will never be one of the ones I choose.

    1. I hate the backwards "R" in the Toys R Us name, but I don’t scream at the minimum-wage people who work there.

    2. Wow, I’m sorry you have so much anger and hostility in your life that you have to take it out on folks who are doing a personally humiliating job as a way to pay their bills. I don’t want to know how many other innocent individuals you justify as the targets of your rage. I’d love to offer the services of my nonprofit (we teach anger and conflict management skillbuilding) but I wouldn’t want you to see that as a solicitation for funds which would land us on your “do not give” list. Hopefully when karma comes around and you need the support of others, you won’t be on their “do not give” lists.

  6. Just FYI, nonprofits operating in Oregon or calling into Oregon on behalf of organizations operating outside of Oregon are subject to the Do Not Call list. Oregon used to maintain their own DNC list, but now just follows the FTC list. And, yes, recieving unsolicited calls is simply annoying–much like getting 25 robo-political ads per day on your answering machine. Annoying.

    If you want to give to a charity, give to the charity directly so that they get 100% of your donation vs. 20% down to 3% from telemarketing companies. If you want to know more about charity telemarketing operations, I would recommend you visit a smoky boiler room some time. That is if you can find out where they’re actually operating….since they will likely be using temporary mail drops in various locations to collect your donations. And, they are typically “established” in office areas that they can vacated in a hurry. Plus, get to know those good wholesome folks working the phones…Yeah, that’s a good sign of the type of business you want to give your donations to….

    1. just fyi on the room i run: commission? 0%! location? 2nd floor development office. DNC list? member generated. Mail drop? USPS PO Box. there are tons of shady groups that use less than ethical practices but pure telefundraising is like most other NFP work based on core beliefs in the the org and not the money. i think youre getting confused about fundraising and marketing.

  7. Hello Everyone and Thank You for all the great insight! I have helped develop a company that brings eCommerce revenue TO nonprofits, and our Advisory Board Leader has been great about reminding others that non-profits must "cold-call" at times and have the unavoidable stress of asking for something. The remark was made to demonstrate the fact that the nonprofits also know what it is like to approach people they don’t know, just as those of us approaching them in the hopes they would be overjoyed at some extra monthly revenue experience ourselves. I have spoken with and approached a number of 501s (or those approaching that status) and cannot imagine not establishing rapport, writing a quick note in advance, and of course, asking if it’s a good time! The great comment someone made about people treating others like people is SO SIMPLE AND BASIC. I also really enjoyed the prepared statement someone had for receiving calls at home. This puts you in control without being rude, and is so honest. Looking forward to more dialogue on this matter. Perhaps people in non-profits would share what they think about cold-calls to them? What are your best and worst experiences in that regard? Thanks! Jean M

  8. Would love to see a future article on the other dreaded nonprofit job: Canvassing.

    Thanks for the thoughtful article.

  9. Interesting exchange of ideas. I personally don’t like telemarketing and as exec. officer haven’t used it at my NFP. But I know it has potential to make money, so have this internal battle: my prejudice vs what might be good for my NFP.
    After reading the above replies, I caught myself wondering who in our organisation I could ask to do some tele-FUNDRAISING, and how this could be managed.
    When I am phoned by other NFPs seeking donations, I tell them where I work and what I do. I also say I donate to select organisations, and will disclose if they are one of them. If I’m interested, I tell them I prefer to receive an offer by mail or email and would they send me the info.
    I will in future try to remember to thank them for calling!

  10. I’ve done tele-fundraising and been fairly successful at it. But I always viewed each call as an opportunity to provide information, learn about the caller, and present a positive image of the organization – no matter how rude the response I received.

    These calls are really another piece of relationship and base building. It concerns me that so many organizations view it only as a success if it raises X amount of dollars. Much of the public is aware now of scams and it should be clear that we should respect that people don’t want to be giving their credit card numbers to someone who calls them. View the phone as a way to thank, remind of important events, or provide with information but encourage your donors to give via safe means (i.e. – secure online means, calling the org with their card info, or sending a check – or maybe even stopping by with it) and they will be appreciative.

    When a tele-fundraiser or marketer calls me, I also remember the human on the other end and respond with genuine politeness about the level of my interest. Asking to be removed from their list is perfectly legitimate; good callers and orgs know this. They prefer to spend their time on those with whom they can build rapport and long term support.

  11. I do telefundraising for a non-profit. People seem to forget that when a non-profit calls them for a donation it is almost always because they have placed themselves on the call list and/or are prior donors. We don’t just get someone’s phone number out of the directory and call them for money. If you have a prior affiliation with a company, whether they are a non-profit or not, it is legal for them to call you. I don’t have a problem when someone tells me to put them on Do Not Call, as long as they don’t act like I’m rude for contacting them. I’ve been accused of getting someone’s name off of the internet and harrassing them, even when I can see that they donated twelve months ago.

    My goal as a telefundraiser is really not to ruin someone’s evening. It is to give them a member update and raise money for a cause. If you don’t support the cause, then don’t give out your contact information, or take it out on the caller when they contact you.

    As for Cathy L., do you really have so little going on in your life that you have to harrass someone who is most likely a student trying to pay their bills? Why are you wasting someone’s time? Just say “no, take me off your list,” like a grown-up and get on with your life.

  12. I think a major point is being overlooked on the not for profits. Many calls are from professional calling companies that take as much as 70% of any donation they get as commission. I cannot tell those companies from the calls that may be directly from the charity itself

  13. Fifteen years ago, I did telephone fundraising in downtown Philadelphia at night. The company’s clients were non-profits (colleges, universities, cultural organizations, hospitals, and public television) and they were very client-results driven. They would call us into the office for every little bitty thing that went wrong (low pledge rates, etc.) One time, my manager called into the office because my pledge rate was too low. He not only wrote me up, but I was suspended for three days. They also wanted me to come back for more training, put me on thirty days probation, and they were going to monitor my performance. If it didn’t improve within that time period, they were going to get rid of me. Thank God that they didn’t.

    In the last two months that I was there, they even sent me home because my pledge rate was too. The straw that finally broke the camel’s back was this. One night, my manager called me and everybody else who was on this fundraising campaign for WNET, Channel 13 in New York, into the breakroom. They were on the verge of losing the contract with them because the pledge rate was too low. He told us that we needed to perform. It’s bad enough that these people have already been oversolicited by them. At the end of the night, I finally told him that i was putting in applications and resumes in other places and that I had to do what I had to do. He then said “Well I’ve got to do what I’ve got to do.” The next day, I went to apply for what was to be my next job; answering inbound directory assistance calls from cellphone customers. When I gave them my resignation, I told them how I felt about this. I felt that this was the equivalent of high-pressured selling.

    I put up with it for nineteen months because I needed the money. If I had been on Social Security Disability back then, I would have quit much sooner. It was either that or else be homeless.

    I don’t like anybody pressuring me to meet certain quotas and goals and treating me like a robot; which I’m not. I am a human being. I have feelings, and I’m going to make mistakes. It’s not my fault that these people are not available, don’t have time to talk to you, refuse to listen to what you have to say, and then hang up on you. Although I feel sorry for the telemarketers, I don’t feel sorry for the telemarketing managers and supervisors. They are nothing but a bunch of greedy bloodsuckers who only care about meeting their clients’ needs and making money at the same time.

  14. Good Morning

    We need a Telemarketing Company ( that works on performance % ONLY NO upfront fees) Business to Business or to Customers that specializes in Fund raising for Charities. We are a Charity for VETERANS.
    Veterans Hope Charity dba of MiniCare an IRS 501c3 Non-Profit, Tax-Exempt Status issued April 20, 2008 3227 Meade Ave, Las Vegas, NV 89102 Tax ID# 26-25529048
    We provide you with VIRTUAL TERMINAL or accept Credit Cards on web site,. Also take checks, money orders, any Donations etc.


    Veterans Hope Charity is dedicated to improving the lives of our HOMELESS VETERANS in the community by creating an environment of hope and unity. We promise to work tirelessly to improve conditions for our veterans and others in the community and affect positive changes in their lives. Veterans Hope Charity will not profit from our endeavors. We believe in fairness for all. Veterans Hope Charity will not waiver in the conviction to create a better community for our Homeless Veterans and other disadvantaged Seniors.
    We pledge to support the causes of health and literacy, environmental protection and conservation, assisting the homeless and hungry, and Veteran services. Through the betterment of Veterans’ lives, advocacy for the environment, aid to those who need basic necessities such as food and shelter, and care of our veterans and disadvantaged Seniors, we can make a difference. Hope for Tomorrow.
    Veterans Hope Charity to organize charity functions specifically for our Homeless Veterans and other disadvantaged Seniors by showing our undying Love, Loyalty, Honor and Respect through various special events.

    Contact: Bob Martins, a Volunteer, a Veteran, & also a Senior
    Veterans Hope Charity 10120 W. Flamingo Rd. #4-344, Las Vegas NV 89147 Phone 702-347-7040 Fax 702-951-5564
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  15. Charity calls may SEEM better than other types, but their bosses can sometimes pocket 65% of what’s intended for the charity, OR the charity may be a scam. I only give by mail (and, BTW, I hate that the ecological charities are sending me mail every week, causing all the trees in the World to be chopped down for paper-LOL.)

    As an MD, I can only say:

    Try to make it with your Brain.

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