Thursday, September 13, 2012

How Big Health Care Charities Rely on Lying Telemarketers

A modern day Diogenes searching for an honest organization in health care would have a very hard time.  Close to the "you can't make this stuff up" category is a new investigative report from Bloomberg on deceptive - to use a polite word - practices at some of the US' biggest health care charities.

Using Commercial Telemarketing Firms that Keep Nearly All Money Raised

The report showed how major US health care charities use privately held for-profit telemarketing firm InfoCision Management Corp to raise money, but most of the money raised went back to InfoCision.  The opening example was of a particular telemarketing call:
A woman named Robin said she was representing the American Diabetes Association.

Robin didn’t ask for money. She asked Patterson to stamp and mail pre-printed fundraising letters to 15 neighbors. Both of Patterson’s parents and one grandmother had been diabetic, so she agreed to do it, Bloomberg Markets magazine reports in its October issue.

'I thought since it does run in the family, it wouldn’t hurt for me to help,' says Patterson, 64, a retired elementary school teacher. She guessed, based on what she knew about charity fundraising, that about 70 to 80 percent of the money she brought in would be used for diabetes research.

The truth was almost the exact opposite. The vast majority of funds Patterson, her neighbors and people like them throughout the country would raise -- almost 80 percent -- would never be made available to the Diabetes Association. Instead, that money collected from letters sent to neighbors would go to the company that employed Robin and an army of other paid telephone solicitors: InfoCision Management Corp.

Just 22 percent of the funds the association raised in 2011 from the nationwide neighbor-to-neighbor program went to the charity, according to a report on its national fundraising that InfoCision filed with North Carolina regulators.

So while some American health care charities boast that most of the money they receive goes to programming, not management or fund raising, in this case, the opposite was true.

Many of the Biggest US Health Care Charities Were Involved

As the article stated,
Many of the biggest-name charities in the U.S. have signed similarly one-sided contracts with telemarketers during the past decade. The American Cancer Society, the largest health charity in the U.S., enlisted InfoCision from 1999 to 2011 to raise money.

In the past decade, many of the nation’s biggest health charities have hired InfoCision, including the American Heart Association, American Lung Association, American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, March of Dimes Foundation and National Multiple Sclerosis Society.

Note that the Bloomberg article was focused on InfoCision. I suspect that if one were able to look at arrangements with similar telemarketing firms made by all US health care charities, the results might be even more extreme.

The Fund Raisers and the Charities Lied

The article contained instances in which the telephone callers lied about who they were or about where the money they were trying to collect would go.

First, regarding who the callers were:
The ruse begins with the name that flashes on your caller ID when a telemarketer is phoning on behalf of a charity. It’s the charity’s name that often shows up, not that of the telemarketing firm.

The misrepresentation can continue on the call itself. Solicitors in recordings obtained by the Ohio Attorney General’s Office sometimes identify themselves to potential donors as 'volunteers.' They’re not; they’re paid employees of InfoCision.

Second, regarding where the money would go:
The bigger lie telemarketers tell is what they say about how much money will go to the charities they’re working for.

According to documents obtained through an open records request with the Ohio attorney general, the Diabetes Association approved a script for InfoCision telemarketers in 2010 that includes the following line: 'Overall, about 75 percent of every dollar received goes directly to serving people with diabetes and their families, through programs and research.'

Yet that same year, InfoCision’s contract with the association estimated that the charity would keep just 15 percent of the funds the company raised; the rest would go to InfoCision.

This deception appears to be sanctioned by the leaders of the charities for whom InfoCision worked,
[American Diabetes] Association Vice President [Richard] Erb offers no apologies for the script, saying the association runs many fundraising campaigns and, overall, about 75 percent of the money goes to its programs. He acknowledges that the contract with InfoCision estimated that the telemarketer would get to keep 85 percent of the funds it raised.

Erb also says he isn’t happy that volunteers are upset upon learning the truth.

'Obviously, if people feel betrayed or that we’re not being honest with them, it doesn’t make me feel well,' he says.

The American Cancer Society similarly seemed to sanction deceptive fund raising practices.
The Cancer Society, in a Sept. 1, 2009, contract with InfoCision, estimated that the charity would get 44 percent of the amount the company collected in the following fiscal year.

The telemarketer script for the same year approved by the society for InfoCision asks solicitors to say something different: 'Overall, about 70 cents of every dollar received goes to the programs and services that we provide.'

Predictably, an executive for the society dodged responsibility for such lying:
[Greg] Donaldson, the society’s senior vice president, declined to comment on the contradiction between the contract and the script, saying the society doesn’t provide 'proprietary competitive information regarding individual programs.'

The Telemarketing Firm Stonewalls

While the Bloomberg reporters were able to get some health care "charity" executives to respond to the issues, InfoCision was not even slightly forthcoming. The best they could do was get an InfoCision executive to protest the company's importance for charity:
InfoCision Chief of Staff Steve Brubaker says his company is vital to the success of charity fundraising. Many nonprofits have stayed with InfoCision for more than 20 years, proving the firm offers value and integrity, he says.

'We’ve developed that high level of trust by being good stewards of their money and mission,' he says. Campaigns to develop new donors are more expensive than those seeking money from previous supporters, he says. He declined to answer specific questions, saying such information is proprietary to the company or its clients.

He turned down a request for interviews with Taylor and InfoCision executives.

Previously, the company owner had taken on the mantle now familiar in the current US election campaign, "job creator,"
[InfoCision founder Gary] Taylor was an outspoken opponent of efforts by the Federal Trade Commission in 2003 to begin the National Do Not Call Registry, allowing people to block calls from for-profit solicitors. In an interview with Customer Interaction Solutions, a trade journal, he said:

'The most pressing issue, without a doubt, is excessive governmental regulation. It seems that the politicians and regulators are ignoring the significant benefits we provide through job creation, economic growth and the goods and services we cost-effectively market for our clients.'

Keep in mind that the article documented how much of those jobs are minimum wage, and they may involve lying.

Note further that Taylor "got his start raising money for evangelical preachers." The company also " did fundraising for Citizens United, the conservative group best known as the plaintiff in the Supreme Court case that allowed unlimited independent spending by corporations and unions on behalf of political candidates."

Health Care Charities are Really Just "Businesses"

Underlying all this seems to be the transformation of health care from a calling to a business. While US health care charities have reputations as organizations out to do good, one executive, the American Diabetes Soceiety's Mr Erb, admitted that doing good was no longer really the focus,
'But the thing is, we’re a business. There has never been a time or a place where we said, 'Most of this money is coming to us.''

An expert the Bloomberg reporters interviewed said that the fund raising tactics these organizations used meant they were no longer charities. Per Ken Berger, "who runs Glen Rock, New Jersey- based Charity Navigator, the nation’s largest nonprofit watchdog group,"
'These organizations were created to provide public benefit,' he says. 'The fact that the vast majority of money is instead lining the pockets of telemarketers defies the whole reason behind the very creation of these charities.'

The Experts Say It's Fraud

Bloomberg reporters interviewed several experts on philanthropy and law. They were not amused. One suggested that the fund raising tactics described in the article were fraudulent:
Charities should be held accountable for deceptive fundraising done in their name, says James Cox, a professor at the Duke University School of Law in Durham, North Carolina, and co-author of 'Cox and Hazen on Corporations' (Aspen Publishers, 2003).

'If that’s what they do systematically, then they’re obtaining money under false pretenses,' he says. 'I don’t just think it’s incredible. I’d be surprised if it isn’t criminal.'

Another labeled the practices "deceitful."

Bloomberg cited a 2003 US Supreme Court decision:
While telephone solicitors have no obligation to volunteer what the firm’s cut is of each donation, they don’t have a constitutional right to lie, the court ruled in a 2003 Illinois case.

'States may maintain fraud actions when fundraisers make false or misleading representations designed to deceive donors about how their donations will be used,' the court said.


This horrendous story illustrates how the mission of health care has been undermined by the last 30 years' push to turn health care organizations into businesses at a time managers were indoctrinated that they only thing that matters is short-term revenue (that is, they have become "financialized," look here). Here we see ostensibly charitable organizations that solicit donations from the public supposedly to aid patients and support medical education and research willing to do whatever it takes to raise money, including deception, and what might be fraud. This is just disgusting.

In my humble opinion, patients, health care professionals, and the public should insist that health care non-profit organizations disclose their fund-raising tactics, and abandon any that are dishonest. Law enforcement should investigate to see if prosecutions for fraud or related crimes are warranted. Organizations that refuse to change their ways should lose their tax exempt status.

Meanwhile, I would suggest that everyone should be extremely skeptical of fund raising by major health care charities. In no instance should anyone give money solely based on telephone solicitations.

If we, health care professionals, patients, the public do not take our heads out of the sand and realize how dishonest health care has become, we will have only ourselves to blame when it collapses.

1 comment:

Steve Lucas said...

I have been struck that while looking at some charities leadership rosters the number of MBA’s and the term “protecting the brand identity” has become common place. Today this corporate mentality appears to permeate all levels of charitable work leading in one case a charity to take legal action against a group simply trying to raise funds that used a sound alike slogan.

Charity, like medicine, appears to have become a simple business whose only function is to enrich those at the top.

Steve Lucas