Some telemarketing agents for the Salvation Army are wearing two hats, switching from solicitors to ministers during a single phone conversation.
About a dozen of the charity’s local divisions employ the services of a call center that specializes in religious fund raising, where the agents are trained to offer to pray with those who have been contacted for monetary contributions.
Perhaps best known for its bell ringers who appear each December at shopping malls and street corners, the Salvation Army describes itself as an evangelical arm of the united Christian Church, whose mission is to provide both religious fellowship and humanitarian aid.
Although the organization frowns on telemarketing to solicit donations and prohibits its use as a vehicle to prospect for new donors, some of its local divisions around the country employ the tactic to reactivate past direct-mail donors, and sometimes they incorporate a few unusual twists befitting the organization’s status as a church.
The Western Pennsylvania Division, which launched its annual fund-raising telemarketing effort last month, for example, not only employed agents trained to offer prayer, but also took the extra step of issuing a press release first to let the public know they’d be calling. Robert Molinari, development director for the Western Pennsylvania Division of the Salvation Army, based in Pittsburgh, said his organization takes a very “soft-sell” approach to its reactivation telemarketing efforts.
“We get a minimal amount of complaints from our donors, as long as they know that it is happening and we are careful,” he said. “If a person does not want to be called again, we are very careful not to call that person any more.”
For the past two years, the division has been outsourcing its telemarketing to call center operator InfoCision, Akron, OH, which has a division specializing in religious fundraisers. The approximately 12 local Salvation Army units that the division serves are located around the country. The company derives about a fourth of its revenues from the religious division.
One of the requirements to work in the religious fundraising division at InfoCision is that the phone agents must be willing to pray with the prospects if requested to do so, or if the agents sense it would be appropriate.
“Our agents are trained to listen to what donors have to say, and to respond to what donors have to say,” said Nick Stavarz, senior vice president of marketing at InfoCision. “A lot of times, particularly with lapsed donors, the reason they have stopped being donors is that they have had some kind of hardship. So, if our communicators determine that that is the case, then we go ahead and turn it into a ministry call.”
Both Stavarz and Molinari said that the agents do not use the prayer as part of the solicitation, however.
“If we’re offering prayer, we’ve stopped asking for a donation,” Stavarz said. “It’s not like we’re saying, ‘OK, we’ll pray with you,’ and then come back and say, ‘Can you help us out with 20 bucks?’ It’s not like that at all.”
He estimated that about 10 percent to 15 percent of the people who are offered the chance to pray with an agent accept the offer. Agents are hired based on their willingness to pray with prospects and are trained to listen for cues that might signal when a prayer would be appropriate.
In addition, when InfoCision’s callers identify someone who may be in need of charitable assistance, those names are forwarded to the Salvation Army.
“Part of our service to our clients is to help them fulfill their mission to their donors,” Stavarz said.
He said the company does not track whether people are more likely to donate money in the future if they have prayed with an agent during a past solicitation.
InfoCision, which was founded in 1982 to serve religious nonprofits, also is proactive in maintaining the Salvation Army’s do-not-call list. If a prospect declines to make a contribution, agents are trained to ask their permission to call back in the future.
The telemarketing campaign is purely for reactivation of past donors. The division mails about 10 direct-mail pieces each year, and those past donors who have not responded in the past 12 to 36 months are contacted by phone during the telemarketing effort. This year, he said the file has about 30,000 names, up from the 14,000 names on last year’s list.
In order to let people know that the Salvation Army will be conducting the campaign, the division issued a press release to the local media before the three-week effort kicked off.
“The first time we did it, last year, we put out a press release saying that the bells would be ringing, but it’s not Christmas,” said Molinari. “We got a lot of coverage on that, and this year we did a similar thing.”
Stavarz said the Salvation Army was the only charity he knew of that telegraphed its intention to conduct a telemarketing campaign by issuing a press release.
“I think if more people were educated about telephone soliciting, they might be more receptive,” he said. “People are kind of used to the aluminum siding salesman that calls you up at dinner time and won’t let you go even after you tell him that you live in a brick house.”