By SYMONNE TORPY
Walking down Broadway, you navigate past colourfully dressed students, away from the allure of the second hand furniture store and the muscle men handing out pamphlets for the 24-hour gym.
You’re making headway in the street traffic. Then you see the charity worker. Almost frothing at the mouth with enthusiasm, he bounds up to you like a friendly puppy.
He’s wearing a T-shirt with a hopeful message on the front. His flyers are plastered with images of hungry children from far off lands. You think about the kebab that you had for lunch. Guiltily you slow down. Perhaps it’s time to sponsor a child?
‘Sales and marketing’ is what it says under the ‘experience’ tab on my résumé. For six months in 2010, I worked for a marketing company that was outsourced to deal with the pressures of attracting new donors for high profile charity organisations. My role was essentially to sell sponsor kids. They had become commodities– a means of generating an income, with all the morality associated with helping the less fortunate slipping by the wayside in our thirst for personal profit.
The Charitable Aid Foundation recently identified Australia and New Zealand as the world’s most charitable nations. According to the ABS, the Australian public donates about $4 billion per year, more than six times the level of donations made by big business.
But where is your hard earned money going?
Figures from Givewell showed the average fundraising cost in 2009 was 19 cents in the dollar, varying widely between organisations from 2% – 40% in NSW. The micro-regulation of charities is the responsibility of state governments, and in NSW there is a requirement to cap fundraising expenses at below 40¢ per dollar.
However,there are no enforced consistencies in the definition of ‘administration’ or ‘fundraising’ in reporting on charity expenditure. In 2008, Funding Institute Australia released a paper in which it stated: “There was general agreement among FIA members that the current disclosure regimes are neither relevant nor appropriate.”
Most marketing agencies keep up to 95% of the first year pledge of a regular donation. Because the average donor makes several pledges over 4 years, the charity wins out over time. However, if the donor is short term, as many students are due to income volatility, the charity will lose money.
Thinking purely business enterprise, the marketing company profit model is an effective one. The company I worked for employed personable youth on a commission only basis, to appeal to the broader community with a carefully rehearsed sales pitch. People would sign up on the spot for child sponsorship and depart feeling the glow that comes with an altruistic act. We would leave with the glow of another $120 dollars padding our wallets. Per customer. And the ‘high rollers’ in the North Sydney office were making between $500 and $2500 per week, not to mention competition perks such as Prada handbags and trips to the Gold Coast.
I was part of that group, rising quickly in the industry. We were flown to Melbourne to open a new office, where the company culture meant pearls, cocktails, Sunday gâteau, designer shopping and incredible dining. We said our own version of grace before dinner, “Thank you Lord, for those who do not eat. Thank you for allowing us to give them food, so that they can give us money and we can eat.” And we went on this way, earning and squandering thousands of dollars a week on the backs of the charity organisations that employed us.
As anyone in sales will know, a lot of training goes into the pitch. Every morning, over one hundred salespeople (including several internationals on working visas) streamed into the harbour-view North Sydney office for training.
Equal parts pre-game pep talk, early morning pump class and key to success seminar, it was described by a member of the team as “cultish and really American…it was like its own religion”. Hip-hop music throbbed through the walls as the seasoned salesmen shared their moves. They were the cool kids. They smoked Marlboroughs, lived out of home and wore beautifully cut suits.
The newbies hung around the fringes, hands in pockets, tentatively rehearsing the pitch script. Turn over was high. Only a small percentage had the right blend of confidence and the persistence to cut it out on the street.
Equally difficult, was cutting it in a company of so many large personalities, in an environment where low sales meant you had to brand yourself with a sticker announcing “I need help”, until sales rose to at least two per day. If a sales agent had not mastered the job within two weeks, he would likely leave the company for something more stable and less demanding. Therefore, it was important to train quickly and cleverly.
One of the first things to learn in a street-sales situation is how to break the barrier between you and the potential client. The boss likened it to “picking up at a club”. You need confidence, pizzazz and a slightly corny pick up line. Above all, you need a thick skin and the ability to pick your target. For the girls, it was men of every age, race and creed. Flirting was key; physical contact was desired. For the guys it would vary, from men who only listen to other men, to sweet little old ladies. Choosing the right targets and hooking them quickly translated to faster money and less wasted opportunity.
The second most important skill is objection handling. From breaking the cost down into manageable units (“give up one coffee a week to save a life”), to crossing the time barrier (“this will only take a moment”), to cornering one half of a couple into committing (“I’m sure your partner will see this as symbol of your generosity”), objection handling is about persistence. Sometimes it took multiple conversations with the same person on different days to get pen to paper and credit card details securely in hand.
Ashley remembers, “Once I followed this guy all the way to the car park… I had a gut instinct, and couldn’t let it go… [He signed up for] two kids”.
Closing the sale was the best part. Monday: “Would you rather the orphan from Burkina Faso or the sixteen-year-old mother from Nigeria?” Tuesday: “So how many children would you like to save today?” Friday: “Would you like to write to a future South American soccer player?”
Despite the use of these lines to appeal to the client, an overarching feeling emerged from the sales team. It was: “I didn’t feel like we cared or focused on the kids at all… during meetings or even in the middle of pitching”. It was about “Sales and everything else that will help us make more sales”.
Africa was a popular consumer choice as it was easily recognisable and had been romanticised by pop star adoption and Hollywood films. Mothers envisioned their own children taking the sponsor kid profile to school for ‘show and tell’. We cashed in on the cute factor. The youngest kids were easiest to move. The older ones stayed in the back of our folders, as we played only our strongest suit.
When it came to committing pen to paper, the people who donated most were those who clearly had to make sacrifices in order to sponsor. Students, single parents, pensioners, people in the hospitality industry signed up by the hundreds. We targeted them.
To most, we appeared to be hard working, young and passionate volunteers. We were told not to correct them.
Travelling to small rural towns was also rather lucrative. In and out in a week, we were able to exhaust small, untouched pockets of the child sponsorship market, all the while enjoying the free travel and the endless drinking that accompanied our road trips.
Paid marketing companies operating for charity are perhaps not as bleakly immoral as I portray them. Of course, children are sponsored, communities are saved and people are educated through their work. Dr. Peter Chen [Social Change and Politics academic at the University of Sydney] says that the trend towards professional marketing outsourcing is symptomatic of the scarcity of volunteers in an era when women have re entered the workforce and time is a valuable resource. He believes that charities use these methods begrudgingly, “one, because they don’t want to split the money, two, because they know it’s bad for publicity and three, because it’s sort of counter to the spirit … but actually it works”.
Unfortunately, the financial driver underpinning most charities has meant that, as Chen notes, “this is a necessary evil”. However, even if we take into account the need for the paid marketing tool, it is in contrasting the humble stereotype of the charity with the highly disposable lifestyles of marketing employees, that I find myself struck by the dichotomy. In that sinister version of grace we repeated (and yes, we actually said it), we saw something humorously absurd about it.
In concluding, I would like to stress one point above all others. I do not discourage any student from supporting charity. Sponsor widely.
Donate as much as you can, but before you feel guilty for keeping your head down and your iPod firmly plugged in on your way down Broadway, be aware that some street marketers are better paid than you are.
Most are spinning stories of a passion, which may or may not be based on truth. The life of a charity marketer is difficult but highly organised. In most cases it no longer aligns with romantic hippy pipe dreams and lone Greenpeace boats out on the open ocean.
Please note: Mamamia is aware that there thousands of Australians who do volunteer their precious time to help those less fortunate, and to you we are very grateful.
Packing up her Sydney life in early 2013, Symonne fronted up to Kingsford Smith airport wearing fox fur and Greta Garbo sunglasses. It was 40 degrees Celsius that day, but she had limited luggage allowance and a strange desire to depart Australia looking like a Russian oligarch. She now lives and writes in Paris.
An aspiring cultural commentator, with a passion for Auspol and Vegemite that refuses to be silenced, follow her adventures on Twitter @symonnetorpy or check out her narcissistic fashion blog at www.symonnetorpy.com.