Oxfam suspends call centre after harassment allegations

Staff 'encouraged to pressurise the vulnerable'

Updated: 
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Oxfam says it has suspended two fundraising contractors after allegations that staff were harassing the elderly and vulnerable.

The Mail on Sunday sent a reporter undercover to work at London call centre company Listen Ltd, which raises funds for Cancer UK, Shelter and the RSPCA among others.

She was assigned to work raising money for Oxfam. And, says the paper, the first day of training involved learning how to persuade a 98-year-old pensioner to donate. "They haven't said they are dead," the trainer joked.

Another scenario involved someone on benefits of £61 a week: "Another excuse," said the trainer. And he even coached staff on how to persuade cancer sufferers that they should donate to Cancer UK.

Staff are told to always ask for money three times in every call, even if the person refuses or says they can't afford it, and given bonuses for hitting sign-up targets.

Listen Ltd works with street fundraising firm Street Academy, whose 'chuggers' are instructed to take donors' names and phone numbers. Within minutes, in some cases, Listen Ltd was on the phone asking for more. It has raised over £150 million since 2008.

The company is headed by Tony Charalambides, who previously held the same position with a chugging company called Tag Campaigns - which was dumped by Oxfam in 2013 and went under after rule-breaking came to light.

Oxfam has denied that its fundraisers specifically target the elderly, and says it has suspended all operations with both Listen Ltd and Street Academy while it investigates.

"Oxfam carries out regular quality checks of fundraising calls on our behalf and insists on high standards of training and monitoring," says director of fundraising Tim Hunter.

"For every £1 we spend, 9p is invested to raise more life-saving funds and the support we receive from the public is crucial to our work. If anyone has any complaints about the activities, I urge them to contact us at feedback@oxfam.org.uk."

Shelter, the RSPCA and Cancer Research have also said they plan to carry out investigations.

The Fundraising Standards Board (FRSB) says it is deeply concerned about the allegations.

"It is critical that fundraisers treat the public with respect, openness and honesty at all times," says chief executive Alistair McLean.

"The FRSB will investigate these claims to establish whether any breach of fundraising standards has taken place."

The news comes less than a month after the suicide of 92-year-old Olive Cooke, who had been harassed with as many 260 letters a month from charities asking for money. Civil society minister Rob Wilson has now announced an investigation into fundraising practices.
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