Vincent Safuto’s Weblog

Notes and observations

Charity telemarketer’s defense is usual array of excuses

When the Tampa Bay Times began its series on the activities of the Navy Veterans charity, its stories centered around the behavior of the charity’s founder, “Lt. Cmdr. Bobby Thompson,” as he was known at the time.

The newspaper had no other way to identify him, and efforts to find the chapter presidents supposedly scattered across the country had turned up an array of mail drops and post office boxes but no solid evidence of the existence of a real organization.

One point of contact was the charity’s lawyers, who I have to admit went above and beyond the call of duty in defending their client to the news media.

Perhaps someday the Tampa Bay Times will publish a book of its investigation, and include the vast array of threatening letters it received and posted to its website from the law firm involved.

The interesting thing was that the firm vehemently defended its client and attacked the ownership structure of the Tampa Bay Times (it is owned by a nonprofit) but ended its defense of the Navy Veterans charity when the charity stopped paying it. That’s hardly a surprise. I have always held that attorneys will be your staunchest defenders until you stop paying them. That’s not a dig at attorneys. They have bills to pay, office expenses to meet and more.

One thing I always enjoyed about the novels of John Grisham was that he showed the real side of being an attorney or a law student about to become one. It’s not an easy way to make a living nowadays. Suing on contingency or threatening a suit in the hope of a settlement never is, especially when the target can appeal for decades to come.

I recently posted a diatribe against an organization that was neck-deep in the Navy Veterans charity scheme, Association Community Services Inc. of Southfield, Mich. (ACS), describing in detail years of telephone harassment aimed at my onetime telephone number that became so intense, I had to cancel my landline service.

I noted that the previous owners of that number apparently had been on their “sucker” list, and from the first time I got the landline connected I was hit hard with charity telemarketing calls aimed at them. In an effort to find out what was going on, I began to identify myself as them and found that there was a pattern to the calls.

They were targeted by ACS, sometimes multiple times per day. One day, I received three calls in a half-hour, and noted that I could hear the same background noise each time.

In my quiet time before taking a shower and getting ready to go to work, I’d often be interrupted by a call from ACS.

Finally, one day I had had enough. I decided that the interruptions and the harassment had to end. I canceled my landline service, and now the ACS boiler room gets dead air when my number is dialed.

Of course, my blog post against ACS did not go unnoticed, and a flack or attorney of some sort responded. I approved the post even though it was nonsense and the usual attempt to defend ACS that has been made all over the country. Even after ACS is proven to use certain tactics, it insists on denying those tactics as it agrees to fines and other actions by states over those tactics.

Herewith is ACS’ response, with my comments in bold type.

Mr. Safuto – We had a chance to review your recent blog post in regards to telemarketing and ACS specifically. We appreciate your concerns and interest in professional fundraising and we would like to address some of the assertions in your blog post and offer additional perspective.

In other words, the usual defenses.

Our organization provides non-profits with the resources and experience they lack to raise tangible donations to address their respective causes. Fundraising is expensive. We are efficient, effective and operate well within, if not under, the overall non-profit expense to profit norm.

If that’s the case, how come ACS is bankrupt and, according to an April 10, 2014 article in the Detroit Free Press, “[it] names 39 creditors in the court documents it submitted last month, including AT&T, the cities of Dearborn and Southfield, Ricoh, PNC Bank, Oakland County, a Missouri law firm and a Syracuse, N.Y. headphones company. It owes the IRS more than $15.5 million and the state of Michigan more than $1.1 million, according to court documents.” See original Detroit Free Press and Tampa Bay Times stories. William P. Barrett of Seattle has a great website with commentary on ACS.

ACS does not call persons “multiple times a day for different charity clients” as a standard practice. We utilize a predictive dialer to place calls to phone numbers, not specific people. This dialer is populated with lists of previous and potential donor phone numbers for different charity campaigns. The predictive dialer may call a telephone number on a given day more than once, if the initial call has not been answered. For instance, a call may be placed at 10:00 a.m. and not be answered by the resident. The number may then be called in the evening in an effort to reach the resident.

Bull-patties. I must be losing my mind if I got calls for different charities and heard the same background noise. I even pointed it out to the caller on the day that I got three calls in a half-hour, and she said, “Uh-oh.”

ACS obtains lists of persons across the United States who have active land line telephone numbers. ACS calls to solicit financial support for its charity clients and to increase public awareness of their name and mission. Persons who have demonstrated a willingness to contribute to a client charity are solicited again, which is standard fundraising practice. Over time, it is possible that individual donors will elect to support more than one charity for which ACS solicits. In this manner, those donor’s phone numbers will be present in more than one charity calling list. Generally speaking, ACS will not attempt to solicit donors more than three times a year for any given charity. By chance, if the stars aligned properly, it is possible that a potential donor phone number could be called for several charities in one day. But this would be an unusual incident, because campaign phone numbers are dialed randomly and even then would only impact a single day of calling to that household. This is not an ongoing pattern of solicitation.

In other words, suckers. Every charity keeps a list of repeat donors, and hits them up at key times (the holidays, etc.) ACS just got “lucky” and hit a phone line whose holder had changed and got tired of being called over and over.

For clarification, ACS CANNOT engage in solicitation calling based on age or any other demographic factor. Our dialer database simply does not contain any information about a potential donor’s age. If a person was actively donating to a dozen of our charity clients, those relationships would have been cultivated and evolved over a period much greater than 12 months – likely years – and couldn’t exist without a person’s ongoing support or involvement.

But ACS is known to deliberately target areas like Florida where there is a large population of older folks with money. Dial a Florida area code and number at random, and chances are you’ll eventually hit a retired person. And let’s remember that in Virginia, ACS paid a fine and signed a consent decree declaring that it would stop soliciting for Navy Veterans in Virginia, then hit Virginia landline owners with more Navy Veterans solicitations. Their excuse? They made a technical mistake, and instead of removing the Virginia phone numbers from their database, they set them up to be hit again with more calls. See this link and this PDF file, Page 11.

We hope this information is valuable in providing insight into our business practices. ACS is proud of our history and our work providing non-profits with the resources and experience they lack to raise tangible donations to address their respective missions. We take our responsibility to charitable donors and the charities we work with very seriously.

Thank you,
ACS Team

Nonprofit Quarterly notes that ACS on average keeps 80 percent of the money it raises under the names of nonprofits for itself, but that number can increase over time. At the start, it will keep up to 95 percent of the money it raises. So if you give early in a charity’s career, you’re basically betting that at some point it will start helping those in need. Considering that Navy Veterans and ACS raised nearly $100 million, according to the series in the Tampa Bay Times, and gave almost nothing to veterans, it may be a long wait.

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July 30, 2014 - Posted by | Life lessons, Living in the modern age | , , , , , , , ,

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