Andrew Bibby



Andrew Bibby is a professional writer and journalist, working as an independent consultant for a number of international and national organisations, and as a regular contributor to British national newspapers and magazines. He is also the author of a number of books.

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Home-based workers fundraise for charity: Actionaid's NTT operation

This article by Andrew Bibby, in a slightly different form, was first published in Flexible Working magazine (UK), 1997

If the phone rings at home tonight, it may be a friend, it may be the double-glazing salesperson but it could equally be someone ringing on behalf of your favourite charity, keen to persuade you to support it in its work.

Telephone fundraising is increasingly an important part of many charities' income-generation strategies. The reason is simple: compared with more traditional forms of fund-raising, the telephone can achieve remarkable rates of response. Whilst a successful direct mailshot may bring in a trickle of donations, a telephone campaign can in some circumstances produce a 50%-75% response rate.

Whilst some charities decide to handle telephone fundraising in-house, this is an area where outsourcing to specialist companies who have both the technology and trained telephone callers can make obvious sense. The issue is sensitive, though, in that callers are expected to be in sympathy with the cause they are promoting. (A well-publicised case some years ago when Labour Party recruitment calls were found to be being made by non-Labour members pointed up some of the hazards.)

When charity telephone fundraising first arrived in Britain about ten years ago, one of the major players was a US based company whose transatlantic marketing techniques raised eyebrows in the British voluntary sector. Since then, some of the early excesses of telephone fundraising have been moderated and most charities do not cold-call, focusing instead on known supporters.

Currently there are three specialist companies who lead the way in providing telephone fundraising services for charities. Whilst all three have a strong voluntary sector feel to their operations and management practices, two (Pell & Bales and Personal Telephone Fundraising) are commercial businesses. The third is somewhat different, in that it is a trading subsidiary of the Third World development charity Actionaid.

Actionaid is a well-established charity, which together with Oxfam, Christian Aid and other development charities is a member of the Disasters Emergency Committee, responsible for co-ordinating relief efforts when a major disaster occurs. Actionaid runs a successful 'sponsor a child' scheme, which at present has about 120,000 UK participants. In total, Actionaid has about 300,000 supporters.

The organisation was a very early exponent among British charities of the use of the telephone, having started in around 1988-1989 a concerted campaign by telephone to recruit door-to-door collectors for its annual Actionaid week. About five years ago, the charity took the decision to offer out its National Telephone Team (NTT) on a contract basis to other charities. NTT currently undertakes work for about twenty other charities, including Help the Aged, the Imperial Cancer Research Fund, Counsel and Care for the Elderly and the RNLI. This work is undertaken as a business, with profits covenanted to the parent charity. Typically, the cost to the client per each call made is around Actionaid's National Telephone Team (NTT) has its call centre in an old office block in the business area of central Bristol. The centre is relatively low»tech, with callers (many of whom are students at Bristol's two universities) sitting at partitioned desks. The Bristol centre has facilities for handling about 40-50 calls at any time, and whilst it primarily handles outgoing calls also takes some incoming calls (for example, those coming in after local radio advertisements). NTT has about 120 callers on its books for the Bristol centre.

This call centre is, however, only one part of NTT's operation. When NTT first began it was structured around a dozen or so teams of home-based callers, based in most parts of the country. Since then, NTT has chosen to reorganise and has focused its operations on the West Country. However, home-based workers remain a very important feature of NTT's overall work structure. According to Helen Suffell who manages the NTT Home Teams, the reason is simple: "it works fantastically well," she says.

NTT currently has fifty home-based employees working for it, in four teams based in Plymouth, Exeter, Wellington and Liskeard. At peak times (in the run-up to Actionaid week, for example), the numbers employed increase to about seventy, and a fifth team is temporarily established (this is also based in Plymouth). Staff telephone from their homes, using their ordinary home telephones and claiming back the costs weekly from NTT.

Helen Suffell manages one of the teams herself from a home-office in south»east Cornwall, and her three other team leaders also work from their homes. The organisation has developed a comprehensive management pack for each team leader, including standard letters, forms and procedures for handling recruitment, training and complaints.

The vast majority of NTT's home-based callers work part-time, for ten hours a week. There is a practical reason for this: generally speaking, telephone fundraising can only be undertaken during the early evening and at weekends, when people are at home and available to be called. A voluntary Code of Practice from the Institute of Charity Fundraising Managers prohibits calls after 9pm.

Of the standard ten hours, seven are spent making calls, two handling administrative work (for example, sending out confirmation letters immediately to supporters who have pledged money during a call), and one hour is reserved for the weekly team meeting. Elaine Artus who co-ordinates the NTT team in Exeter stresses the importance of having a face»to-face meeting with her team once every week, using the opportunity to brief them on forthcoming projects or to report on performance. Team members are expected to travel to the meeting, held in this instance in central Exeter, in their own time and at their own expense. NTT pays expenses however for other events, such as occasional visits to Actionaid's administrative centre in Chard.

Within the overall pattern of the ten-hour week, home-based workers can choose their own hours of working to fit in with other commitments. The standard casual employment contract offers holiday pay (one hour paid holiday for each twenty hours of work), once staff have worked for the organisation for at least 150 hours. It means, as Helen Suffell points out, that a new member of staff employed in January should have a week's holiday available to him or her by July.

NTT undertakes to give a week's notice to its casual employees if work is not going to be available, but there is no sickness benefit scheme. The pay itself is on an hourly rate, starting at £3.80 ph, and rising to £4.61 ph for advanced callers who have been with the organisation for at least a year. Actionaid now chooses not to use self-employed callers, mainly because this eliminates any potential problems with the Inland Revenue on questions of Schedule D/Schedule E classification.

Whilst most home-based NTT callers are on casual contracts the organisation also employs six callers, who have worked for NTT for many years, as salaried part-time employees on permanent employment contracts. Their contract is complicated in that they are employed for 44 weeks of the year, four of which can be taken when they wish as paid holiday. The remaining eight weeks of the year (which include periods around Christmas and the summer holidays when NTT's workload is slack) are not periods of employment, and no pay is made. These salaried employees receive all the standard employment benefits which Actionaid offers, including pension provision, life insurance and sick pay. Their pay is £51.40 a week. According to Helen Suffell, the salaried employees help protect NTT from the uncertainty of only using casual staff. Salaried or not, the majority of NTT's home-based teams stay with NTT. Helen Suffell estimates that 80% of her callers have been with the organisation for at least 3-5 years and some have worked since NTT's earliest days almost a decade ago. An extra advantage is that the callers generally are themselves very committed to Actionaid's work as a charity.

This clearly helps counter some of the potential management difficulties of using dispersed home-based workers. Recruitment is undertaken locally when necessary by each team leader. Helen Suffell stresses the importance of the initial telephone conversation, as a way of judging a person's suitability for the work. Once appointed, new callers attend a one-day training course, half of which is used for describing Actionaid's work as a charity and half is dedicated to telephone techniques. Thereafter, team leaders generally visit new staff in their homes, to overhear phone conversations made and offer advice and support.

There is additional training for callers each time a new project is established. Recent projects, which typically run for several months, include 'Sponsor Get Sponsor', a campaign to invite existing sponsors of children to sign up a friend to the scheme, and a recruitment drive for new supporters linked to an Actionaid-sponsored question on a consumer lifestyle questionnaire. This latter campaign received a successful response rate of 28%, bringing the charity half a million pounds a year extra in voluntary income. NTT primarily uses its home-based teams for its own internal fundraising, in contrast to the Bristol centre where 60% of work is for external clients. Helen Suffell estimates that about 10% of her teams' work is external.

She is extremely positive about the value to Actionaid and its National Telephone Team of home-based working. Interestingly, the organisation's by now substantial experience has passed unnoticed by most UK observers of home-based teleworking (Actionaid did not feature for example in a recent review in Teleworker magazine of British employers making use of telework). One senses perhaps that Actionaid has not thought fit to publicise what it has been doing simply because the arrangements seem effective and common-sensical.

There is perhaps one difficulty which commercial businesses considering home-based telemarketing (the so-called dispersed call centre model) face which is less of a problem for a charity like Actionaid. Background home noise - a dog barking, or a crying child - can create a poor image. Whilst NTT encourages its home workers to avoid these problems, callers are told to explain where they are ringing from if the issue arises. "We are working from home, and we're not ashamed of working from home," says Helen Suffell.

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