Listen is a remarkable tale of fundraising survival

How the fundraising agency has stayed afloat in a market that has been massively cut is something of a mystery, writes Third Sector's Susannah Birkwood

"Why would you work with an organisation that behaved in the way that the fundraising agencies Listen and GoGen did last summer?"

Cancer Research UK’s fundraising director Ed Aspel asked this question of me several months ago. 

He didn’t mean it as an actual question, of course. He said it by way of explanation for the cancer charity’s decision to stop working with the agencies after they featured in several mainstream press articles last summer.

One of these, GoGen, closed down just weeks after the Daily Mail accused it of calling charity supporters who were registered with Telephone Preference Service last June. The other one, Listen Ltd, continues to operate, despite being accused of using high-pressure fundraising techniques by the Mail on Sunday, also last June. The newspaper’s claim was later upheld by the Fundraising Standards Board.

How the agency has managed to survive in a market which is said to have contracted by 75 per cent since last summer and in which even agencies which weren’t named in the critical media stories have been forced to close is a mystery.

Aspel, whose charity came under fire by the media for employing GoGen and Listen, was clear that he thinks it misguided for charities to work with Listen. "It's not only a reputational risk," said Aspel in March. "It's also just wrong." Oxfam also no longer works with the agency.

But as this table of some of the largest fundraising charities shows, the fact is that many of the large ones still do.

Charities Agencies used
Barnardo's Listen (phone)
British Red Cross Listen, Pell & Bales, DTV Optimise and Mango (phone); AGS (door to door); Care2Give (private site); Urban Leaf (street)
Cancer Research UK Pure, Pell & Bales and Ethicall (phone); Real, Together, Home Fundraising (face to face)
NSPCC Declined to say
Macmillan Listen, Ethicall, NTT (phone); Home Fundraising (door to door)
Oxfam NTT and Angel (phone); Urban Leaf (face to face)
RSPCA Listen (phone); declined to say others
Save the Children Urban Leaf (street); Neet Feet (door to door and private site); declined to say for phone
St John Ambulance DTV Optimise (phone); Wesser (door to door)

The RSPCA, Unicef, the British Red Cross, Macmillan Cancer Support and Barnardo’s still work with Listen, and while the NSPCC refuses to confirm whether it still does, its chief executive told a select committee hearing last September that it was a client then. This is despite the fact that the RSPCA and Unicef were among the charities criticised for working with the agency in the Mail on Sunday’s coverage, while the Red Cross, Macmillan and the NSPCC were attacked for their association with GoGen.

"I am quite surprised about Listen surviving," says a fundraising consultant who wanted to remain anonymous. "I don’t get it other than thinking that it’s something that is symptomatic of the charity sector – it’s very much a sector of who you know."

Tony Charalambides, the managing director who founded Listen in 2008, is heavily embedded in the sector. One of his other fundraising firms – the face to-face agency Tag Campaigns - went into administration in January 2013, seven months after a Sunday Telegraph article reported that it was breaking fundraising rules.

His sector involvement more recently has included taking part in a task group set up by the Institute of Fundraising and offering sponsorship to the Commission on the Donor Experience, an initiative launched earlier this year to put donors at the heart of fundraising.

Dominic Will, who heads up the door-to-door agency Home Fundraising, tells me that it should be viewed as a positive that Listen has survived. "It’s a good thing that certain organisations have supported agencies that have had a particularly tough time and whose reputation in all likelihood doesn’t reflect the quality of work that they do," he says. 

This may well be the case. Charalambides said last summer that he did not feel the Mail on Sunday’s "heavily-edited footage" was in any way representative of his company’s work. The accountancy firm Grant Thornton was appointed to carry out an audit of the company’s processes and company culture, but the results were not made public. Perhaps the agency’s practices have improved – or maybe they didn’t need to improve a great deal in the first place.

Yet I still think it is a little odd that so many large charities would continue working with Listen at a time when their reputations are so fragile and when numerous other agencies need the business.

Does Listen, now the biggest phone fundraising agency in the market, achieve better fundraising results than the competition? Is that why charities have stuck by it? Charalambides has refused press interviews since the events of last summer. It would be good to hear his side of the story.

Susannah Birkwood is a senior reporter for Third Sector.

For more on fundraising agencies, see this month's feature. 


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