Dynamist Blog

The Telemarketing Charity Racket Cont'd

Responding to my post below, reader Kenneth Gauck shares some calculations on the economics of telemarketing fundraisers:

I had done some telemarketing in the 80's for lawn care and at some point in the early nineties was in need of extra cash and answered an ad for telemarketers. We were raising money for something that sounded very much like a state agency for the blind here in Missouri. I was trained for a day, and after the second day, did some math, estimating our labor costs, the rental for the space we used, and I knew the amount of money we raised. The costs as I estimated them were about 90% of what we were raising. Even if the charity was legitimate, and I doubt it was, it was using nearly everything it raised to pay for the telemarketers. I went back the next day and explained my math. No one else seemed interested, so I went home during break and never came back.

Nonprofits are exempt from observing the federal do-not-call list. If they call, hang up. If you want to be polite first say, "Sorry, we're not interested and do not call again." Or ask to be contacted only by mail.

What Do We Get For the Money?

As California experiences (yet another) budget crisis and Democrats push (yet again) for big tax increases, John G. Matsusaka of USC points out a major reason why the public obstinately demands more services while refusing more taxes: While spending has skyrocketed, services haven't--at least not in ways that people notice. Money quote:

Voters are criticized for wanting more services yet being unwilling to pay higher taxes. That is unfair; Californians have repeatedly demonstrated their willingness to fund valuable programs. But if spending can go up 40% and most of us can't discern any difference, can we blame voters for being hesitant to put even more tax money in the hands of the state?

If you live in--or care about--California, you should read the whole thing.

UPDATE: On a related note, the SacBee's Dan Walters points out a bait-and-switch by L.A. mayor Antonio Villaraigosa. The city more than doubled residential garbage fees, supposedly to put 1,000 more cops on the street. The fee increase raised $137 million, but the city hired only 400 more cops at a cost of about $42 million. Most of the rest went for raises. Walters writes:

Most of the trash money was diverted into underwriting the city's cash-strapped general fund, which includes those generous raises for cops already on the street. And that's just the beginning of the tale. Los Angeles faces a whopping budget deficit, despite the trash fee, and Villaraigosa and the City Council want to raise trash fees even higher to cover the shortfall, along with boosting a batch of other fees.

Villaraigosa also is promoting a countywide sales tax hike devoted to improving mass transit. The council has approved a "parcel tax" on homes and businesses for the November ballot that would finance anti-gang programs.

The amounts of money are not huge, but one wonders whether Villaraigosa and other city leaders are overreaching by proposing a wide array of new fees and taxes while recession is hitting the state and Southern California is being hammered especially hard.

What's happening in the state's largest city echoes what's happening in Sacramento as Schwarzenegger and lawmakers struggle with a $15.2 billion general fund budget deficit and Democrats propose $8.2 billion in new taxes, plus several billion in other revenues, to close the gap.

Oh yeah, and why is this in the Sacramento Bee instead of the LAT?

The Future Will Seem Normal

The always interesting Joel Garreau visits Disneyland and contemplates the ways in which Tomorrowland reflects a changing dream of "the future." You should read the whole article, but here's an excerpt.

Disney -- so far into our heads, hopes and dreams that it is legendarily the Mouse that built the better people trap -- is now presenting not so much the future, but the future that it thinks we want. Wander around Tomorrowland and it no longer gleams with white plastic and blue trim. No "2001." It is an antique future, a bronze future, full of things that look like astrolabes channeling Leonardo da Vinci.

The future of the future is in the past?

"This is an aspirational future," says Disney spokesman John J. Nicoletti....

But this is absolutely not the future in the research pipeline. No genetically modified critters here that eat carbon dioxide and poop gasoline. No nanobots smaller than blood cells, cruising our bodies to zap cancer. No brain implants that expand our memory. No cellphones that translate Chinese. No dragonfly-size surveillance bots, no pills that shut off the brain's trigger to sleep, no modified mitochondria sustaining our energy while making obesity as quaint as polio.

Apparently that tsunami of change doesn't sell. That disturbing but dazzling future rumbling our way is distinctly different from the soothing one Disney thinks we crave.

The new Innoventions Dream Home aside, much of this reassuring Tomorrowland is a decade old--a revisionist "culture of futures" old enough to make the introduction of The Future and Its Enemies. While Disney's vision is almost guaranteed to miss reality, it does get something big right: Whatever mind-blowing technologies the future holds, we'll almost certainly incorporate them into lifestyles that change only gradually, where even what sound like radical social changes turn out to be incredibly bourgeois in practice. (Think test tube babies or gay marriage.) All the drawing-board ideas Garreau cites may very well come true, but once we have them they'll seem as normal as cell phones, Prozac, MRIs, or pantsuits.

The article ends with a lengthy quote from Danny Hillis about the way the idea of the future has changed since the mid-20th century. Here's an excerpt.

"We have made incredible progress. The world is way better off than it was in the '60s. But we've had enough of the future to realize that it's complicated. If you look at '2001: A Space Odyssey,' everything seemed quite plausible at the time -- especially the international cooperation aspect of it.

"What I think it says is that we are nostalgic for a time when we believed in the future. People miss the future. There's a yearning for it. Disney does know what people want. People want to feel some connectedness to the future. The way Disney delivers that is to reach back in time a little bit to the past when they did feel connected.

"It's a bit of a cop-out. There was a time when the future was streamlined jet cars. Rather than create a new sense of the future, they say, 'Ah, remember when we believed that the future was streamlined jet cars?' It's a feeling of connection to the future, rather than connection to the future.

"It's a core ache. Something is missing that we're searching for."

That sounds like an explanation of the Obama campaign's New Frontier appeal.

The Telemarketing Charity Racket

Using public records, the LAT reports on the appallingly small amount of funds raised through telemarketing that actually go to the charities who hire for-profit fundraisers. Charles Piller and Doug Smith write:

According to a comprehensive review of state records filed over a decade, the problem of paltry returns extends well beyond what has been reported in recent years among benevolent societies for police, firefighters and veterans. It affects charities large and small, well-known and obscure. It spans a range of causes, including child and animal welfare, health research and opposition to drunk driving.

Citizens Against Government Waste, which gets only 6 percent of the money its fundraising contractors collect, is the lead example--though, according to the accompanying online database, not the worst one, even within its category. For some reason (I have my theories), the article didn't single out the equally ironic "consumer advocates" at Public Citizen who actually lost 6 percent on their telemarketing. (And the Simon Wiesenthal Center, The Council For a Livable World, and American Immigration Control make even Public Citizen look efficient.)

I understand the argument that these fundraisers are prospecting for people who will become larger donors over time, but their methods are not only inefficient but annoying and misleading. What we need is a campaign that tells people to do their civic duty and hang up on telemarketers, who degrade life for everyone with a telephone.

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