Asking the Boston Symphony Orchestra For Donation Information Apparently Commits You To A $25 Pledge

Reader Ian told a Boston Symphony Orchestra representative to mail him information about donating. The orchestra somehow mistook his request for a $25 pledge, and is now accusing Ian of making a “fraudulent pledge” and demanding that he immediately pay up.

Ian writes:

About a year and a half ago, I got a phone call on my cell phone from an unlisted number. I was busy doing something, but like an idiot I answered anyway. It was a solicitor from the Boston Symphony Orchestra, asking me to donate. I’d taken my fiancee to a concert of theirs about a month prior, and I had purchased the tickets online. I guess they thought just paying for my tickets wasn’t enough. I told him I was busy and to send me something in the mail, and that was that.

A few weeks later I got what looked like a bill from the BSO, saying I had agreed to donate $25, and please pay up. I was pretty annoyed about getting a collection notice for a donation I never actually agreed to, so I tore up the letter and forgot about it. Over the next year, I received a copy of that same notice once every couple of months. Each time, I remembered the sleaziness of the circumstances under which they got my “pledge”, so I just threw it out.

A couple of weeks ago, an unrecognized number appeared on my phone. Since this one wasn’t blocked, I answered. On the other end was an unbelievably rude woman who immediately accused me of making a fraudulent pledge to the BSO because they never received my $25. Then she goes, “So would you please give me a credit card number so we can take care of this?” I was at a loss for words. I explained to her that giving my credit card information to a random person who called my cell phone would be incredibly stupid. She said, “Oh, I assure you I’m calling from the BSO,” and went on to describe the tickets for my outing a year and a half ago–the date, the seats, the cost, etc. At this point I just wanted to get off the phone, so I told her she wasn’t getting my credit card, and to please send me something in the mail. “Impossible,” she said. “When is a good time to call back?” I said the first thing that came to my mind, which was “May”, and she hung up abruptly.

About a week later, I got another letter in the mail asking me to pay up, and last night that familiar number appeared in my caller ID. This time though, I didn’t answer it. I wonder if the BSO realizes it’s telemarketers are acting like financial bounty hunters?

Anyway, I’d advise Consumerist readers to think twice before making a BSO ticket purchase online…

We have a mini-subscription to the New York Philharmonic and used to constantly receive solicitation calls from the “Friends of the New York Philharmonic.” They had our Grandcentral number, and each time they called, we’d ask to be taken us off their lists before blocking the number. Those sneaky audiophiles, they’d call back from a different number and pretend we’d never requested anything other than another call. We must have received well over ten calls before they finally realized they were talking to a stingy blogger.

The experience was annoying enough to keep us from ever being friends with the New York Philharmonic, even if they give us their Cool Ranch Doritos and invite us over to play Grand Theft Auto. No, they blew that chance. Take note, symphony orchestras, your pushy tactics won’t win you any friends.

The broader lesson is to be very careful when donating to any organization. Donating is the fastest way to put your name, number, and address on a slew of annoying solicitation lists. If you choose to give, give anonymously.

(Photo: Getty)

Comments

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  1. healthdog says:

    If you need to give?

    I hope you’re not talking about charity in general.

  2. armydrummer says:

    Fraudulent Pledge? I can’t take anyone that uses that term seriously. Maybe we can get the BSO to start hounding politicians about their “pledges.”

    NPR can help with that during their pledge drives.

  3. JasonKeiderling says:

    @healthdog: I don’t see anything wrong with that statement if he was.

  4. johnva says:

    I’m guessing the paid telemarketer just chose to “misinterpret” his request for information as a pledge because they either are paid as a percentage of pledges they get or because they have some sort of quota to meet. Anywhere people are paid by commission this sort of fraud runs rampant.

  5. BigBoat says:

    But doesn’t anonymity interfere with tax benefits?

  6. PatrickIs2Smart says:

    A similar thing happened to me with the local symphony orchestra… I had to go to a performance for a class, so I bought from Ticketmaster. A few weeks after the show, I started getting the calls asking to donate to the arts. I answered one time, then immediately put that number in my contact list as DO NOT ANSWER. I hadn’t realized that buying tickets was an invitation for solicitation. I didn’t see anything about it in the T&C. The lesson learned was to buy tickets with cash at the box office.

  7. dragonfire81 says:

    Important rule when dealing with telemarketers. Never agree to anything or imply you might agree to anything. EVER. Don’t mention you are “considering” or “thinking of” donating and don’t ask them to send you something in the mail.

    All that says to them is “I just made a commission” and they’ll annoy/decieve you to no ends to try and get it.

  8. gaberussell says:

    I hate to play “blame-the-poster,” but why didn’t Ian call the BSO after the first letter and clear up the confusion? He let it go on for a full year before addressing the situation, and even then, it sounds like he didn’t explain the situation to the caller. He’s going to keep getting phone calls and letters until he clears it up.

    I’ve learned that if you don’t address inaccuracies (especially related to money) as soon as you catch them, things just get worse. Fees accrue, credit gets dinged, etc.

    That said, sounds like the lady was pretty darn rude about it.

  9. homerjay says:

    You just wait until they start sending Betty White after you like PBS does.
    “Elmo knows where you live!”

  10. Mr_Human says:

    Why didn’t the OP tell the woman who called what had happened? Why does he keep saying “send me something?” or why doesn’t he call them himself to sort it out? He doesn’t seem to really want to deal with the issue, and he hopes it will go away on its own.

  11. greenpepper says:

    Typical small print:

    “This pledge is only a statement of intent and is not binding upon the DONOR. While DONOR may not withdraw any donations previously contributed under this pledge statement, any proposed gifts listed herein not yet contributed are made solely at the discretion of the DONOR.”

  12. twid says:

    Personally I go to the San Francisco Symphony less than I used to because of situations exactly like this. Every time we go we get extremely aggressive telemarketing for subscriptions, donations, and other things like charities to support the performers. There doesn’t seem to be any way to opt-out of this in advance, just buying a ticket opts you in to be called.

    I know it’s wishful thinking, but there should really be a law saying that you either need to explicitly opt in for telemarketing when purchasing from a business, or at least an explicit opt-out at the time of your purchase.

  13. ConsumerAdvocacy1010 says:

    Same thing happened to me with the Navy or Army or National Guard or something. Got a call, and they simply asked if they could send me information in the mail. I said, “Okay.”

    I got the information, but decided not to donate. Yeah, I’m cheap. Yell at me. Anyway, I got another TWO letters asking me to quickly pay $20 or $25 since I promised to do so.

    No more phone calls though, and no more mail. Now only if Chase, Capitol One, and Amex would stop with their junk mail….

  14. katylostherart says:

    @gaberussell: a charity pledge cannot ding your credit. they are not a debtor.

  15. world-inferno says:

    I bet it was The Share Group doing the fund raising for BSO.

    [www.sharegroup.com]

  16. trk182 says:

    Why not just answer the phone and cuss the guy out and be an asshole about it. I do it to telemarketers all the time and they hang up on me. :( How am I supposed to know you’re mother ISN’T a whore.

  17. thalia says:

    After Steve Irwin died on my 21st birthday, I saved up what I could and made a donation to Wildlife Warriors. Now they keep sending me letters asking for more money. I even moved a year ago and somehow they found my new address and keep sending the letters. Ugh!

  18. @homerjay: Save me, Jeebus!

  19. sparrowmorgan says:

    Actually, most arts organizations use outsourced telemarketers, and contractors bullying the patrons is a major problem for just about everybody I’ve talked to. Call in to the main office, and talk to someone in charge, they’ll most likely apologize profusely.

  20. @BigBoat: Yes. As I said on a different post, EVERY major charity database program these days lets charities specify in excruciating detail how often (if at all) to contact donors, and in what fashion. If the charity can’t put you in there as “Contact only in December for Christmas/tax break donation, do not send cutesy mailing labels,” I wouldn’t do business with that charity.

    If you tell my group you want to give once a year, in May, and receive a handwritten acknowledgment along with your tax letter, we’ll send you your envelope at the end of April and your handwritten acknowledgment along with your tax letter in late May, end of story.

    (One thing we can’t do, however, is remove the donation envelopes from our newsletter mailings; those go as a piece.)

  21. thesabre says:

    Simply say “I’m sorry, you’re mistaken.” and then hang up. RTS their mail (nonprofit solicitations are RTS-able unlike junk coupons, etc.). No need to get worked up about it. I get calls every day from theatres in the Washington, DC area that my wife and I have visited over the years. Granted, I never made a “fraudulent pledge” (nor have I heard about that until today). I guess BSO wants you to think your “pledge” was like a bid at an auction.

  22. Brie says:

    >If you choose to give, give anonymously.

    e.g. drop a ten-dollar bill in an envelope and snailmail it in? I’m only half-kidding. I thought “giving anonymously” meant your donation was anonymous to other people (as in the annual report) but not to the charity itself.

    For other data: California NOW called and said “we’re reaching out to all our members…” I said what? I donate like twenty bucks a year. It’s not a MEMBERSHIP. I’m not a MEMBER. The woman chuckled and said “Yep, you caught me!”
    The next time they called, I said in my most polite-but-frosty voice, “I’m sorry, I don’t donate to your charity anymore.” No calls since.

  23. Gort23 says:

    This is one reason I refuse to talk to telemarketers. If a charity called, I used to politely say “I’m sorry, I don’t do anything over the phone but if you send me something I will look at it.” After a couple of “thank you for your pledge!” letters, which I immediately round filed, I changed to simply saying “NO” and hanging up.

  24. kbjone says:

    @trk182: My solution is a bit more juvenile, but I love it.

    If I get a whiff of telemarketer (they butcher my last name, no surprise), they get a flush of the toilet, right to the ear.

  25. hatrack says:

    @Mr_Human:
    Agreed. He should have told them he never agreed to donate when he first started to get the notices. He hasn’t taken advantage of the several opportunities he’s had to set the record straight. Suddenly claiming now that he never agreed does look like he’s just trying to weasel out of making the donation.

  26. humphrmi says:

    From the OP: “I told him I was busy and to send me something in the mail”. They probably interpreted that as a pledge.

    The best answer to give these cretins is NO. Never pledge anything on the phone, not even a pledge to read their mail. Tell them it’s against your household policy to make phone pledges, which unfortunately you don’t have the authority to override, and your supervisor is not available to talk about it. :)

  27. greenpepper says:

    BSO CONDUCTOR KEITH LOCKHART SALARY $690,405 ACCORDING TO BOSTON MAGAZINE

    ([www.bostonmagazine.com])

    I’d never contribute to their cause!

  28. Uriel says:

    “accused me of making a [fraudulent pledge]” I would have started laughing uncontrollably the second they mentioned a “fraudulent pledge”, told them “no I didn’t, and even if I did, prove it” and then ended the conversation with a chipper “talk to my lawyer.”

  29. nacoran says:

    Someone should set up a not for profit organization for anonymous donations. It could work like a gift card. You’d buy it at a store (or buy an electronic version online, maybe Pay Pal could do it).

    You buy the card anonymously and then type in the number to whatever charities website you want. The anonymizer charity would be, by virtue of it’s charter, sworn to keep your data private. To work, it would have to be registered as a charitable foundation in it’s own right. You’d use your donations to it for tax records.

    It would in turn give 100% of the money to the charity of your choice. Of course, it would also rely on donations you might make directly to it for it’s operational costs, but they’d promise never to solicit you for money.

    How terrible is it that charities have become so voracious that you can’t just count on them to let you donate to them anonymously. Of course, I’m not sure symphonies are not really not for profits. They charge a lot for their performances. Can you imagine if Walmart called and said, ‘Hello, Mr. Smith, how are you today. First, we’d like to thank you for doing business with us recently. I see you bought socks from us recently. The reason I’m calling is that we’re in the middle of our fall pledge drive and we were wondering if you’d like to make a donation.’

  30. humphrmi says:

    I keep reading about charities having such a tough time lately, since people are tight on money, donations are down.

    It seems to me that the last thing you want to do when you’re on the ropes is alienate your donor base. Hiring thugs to try to increase revenue does just that.

  31. TexasBelle says:

    This reminds me of my experience with the Dallas Symphony a couple of years ago. A salesperson offered me a discount for buying season tickets, which I took, and was then billed accordingly. But 2 months later, a mysterious charge appeared on my credit card — the amount of the discount. A telephone call (they didn’t respond to e-mail) straightened that out, but alas, things continued to go downhill. My tickets weren’t mailed on time, causing me to miss my first concert of the season. Then the tickets were all wrong, not for the concerts I picked. Then exchanging them became the biggest mass of red tape of all time. Throughout all this, no one ever apologized — not even for the unauthorized charge to my credit card. I theorized it was because my tickets were in the “cheap seats.” I can’t imagine their treating the holder of box seats the way I was treated. To add insult to injury, they telephoned me repeatedly over the next 2 years, trying to sell me more season tickets, and would not take me off their list no matter how many times I asked. It was my cell number they had, so I just set their phone numbers to a silent ringer. It’s a damn shame, because I think world-class symphonies are necessary to a civilized society, and I do still attend DSO concerts occasionally. But season tickets, never again, and I’ll never speak to any of their reps on the phone, either.

  32. Lambasted says:

    I am sick of getting bombarded by donation requests. I can’t go to the grocery store without ducking the charity panhandlers standing vigil by doors. Or go shopping without cashiers asking me to add a couple of dollars onto my already high bill to donate to the store’s charity du jour. Telemarketers calling me all hours of the day looking for a handout. I can’t even relax at a red light without someone sticking their hand or boot up to my car waiting for me to drop some money in.

    I used to feel badly about saying “no” but I’ve had enough of this Donation by Duress. I donate to charities of my own choosing not somebody else’s. Thank you, but I can decide for myself who is deserving of my hard earned money. Besides, if I gave money every time someone asked me, I’d need my own charity set up to pay my bills.

  33. Landru says:

    It seems like there is always such a strange disconnect between people who run the non-profits and the people are running the call centers. These people calling for the symphony are probably the same folks as calling from the Police Activity League.

  34. SayAhh says:

    @BigBoat: then donate the amount AFTER “benefits” (e.g., $100 – $10 savings = $90) or donate MORE to offset the credit (e.g., $111.11 – $11.11 = $100). Do you worry about the $10 even though you just forked over $100???

  35. Syrenia says:

    What drives me crazy is how much money charities waste on this.

    Case in point: Doctors without Borders.

    I have them set in my online bill pay and from time to time send them a donation. They always bombard me with donation mailings which, even with large print runs and pre-sort postage still cost money. And they call me. A lot. Each time they call, I tell them that I send them donations when I feel like it and they should take me off the mail and call lists to save money. But they never do. And it annoys me that they are spending money on trying to get more money from me, instead of doctor-without-bordery things.

  36. @Landru: It’s not the same people running the Police Activity League, but they’re pretty damn close.

    The main company that I have had issues with is SD&A. My arts administrative experience is in Atlanta, and multiple arts organizations unfortunately use this company for their telemarketing needs. I was really desperate for a job, and worked for SD&A hawking Atlanta Ballet subscriptions. I always received awful leads and the manager of the campaign was about as bright as a box of rocks. This company hires the bottom of the barrel, and most of the time they have no clue about the art they are selling. Especially when they are pushing theatre subscriptions.

    I do, however, want to repeat what someone above has already mentioned: call the actual organization. I remember when I was on the other end of SD&A’s idiocy as a member of the box office staff. I had to fix a lot of issues that the inept telemarketers caused. Most non-profits realize the importance of keeping everyone happy, and will probably apologize profusely and maybe even give you free tix!

  37. ludwigk says:

    OP deserves all the hassle they can throw at him because he never once tried to fix the issue, or explain what went wrong.

  38. MMD says:

    @ludwigk: When is it ever acceptable for the organization to call and accuse someone of fraud?

    I worked for an arts organization and saw first hand how awful the outsourced telemarketing can be. The OP should definitely call the real organization and report what’s going on!

  39. plustax says:

    I’m sure the original solicitor entered in that the OP wanted to pledge $25 to the BSO. A pledge can be considered a collectable debt according to GAAP. Whether or not they will pursue to the point of sending it to a collection agency will depend on the materiality of the pledge and the likelihood of collect-ability. The problem here is that there is no record of the OP not pledging the $25 to the BSO so subsequent communications will assume the pledge is legit and the donor is refusing to fulfill on their commitment. I’m sure a thorough explanation to the BSO would have cleared this up in no time.

  40. The $25 is the “default” value. The original telewhore entered the OP as a pledged donor for the minimal value. One could assume that was just a clerical error or the only means of “sending” the request letter. Of course it could just be an intentional “error”.

    Regardless of how or why the OP is on the request list, a simple call or letter to BSO should get him off the list.

  41. WraithSama says:

    I used to attend the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra’s performances on a regular basis and was put in the Friends of the Orchestra list.

    I never received solicitations or calls for donations. The only calls I ever received was Friends-only discount offers for tickets and, once, was even offered an opportunity to purchase a gently-used baby grand piano from the orchestra for pennies on the dollar (too bad I couldn’t afford it at the time).

  42. lawmage says:

    @plustax: GAAP has nothing to do with whether or not the debt is collectible. It’s a straight contract law question. A naked promise to donate money is totally unenforceable. Now if the BSO had started building a new wing based on his promise it would be different….

  43. Cliff_Donner says:

    @ludwigk: You’ve got to be kidding. I’ll admit, the OP could have been more pro-active, but on the other hand, he never – - verbally or in writing – - contracted for this debt.

    On a similar note, ludwigk i am hereby informing you that you owe me $100 for every minute that passes before you respond to this post. Please contact me to make arrangements for payment. Thank you.

    (j/k)

  44. Garbanzo says:

    When I donate money to a charity I include a notice that says something like, “If you ever send me mail soliciting another donation I will never give you any money again as long as I live.”

    It’s worked surprisingly well over the years. Most organizations pay attention and leave me alone. Only one group earned itself a permanent ban, and one other is on thin ice.

  45. marsneedsrabbits says:

    @homerjay:

    Betty White: Homer, you don’t have ten thousand dollars, do you?

    Homer: No ma’am.

    Betty White: And you thought you could just stab your problems away?

    Homer: Yes ma’am, sorry ma’am.

  46. plustax says:

    @lawmage: Hey law guy cut me slack here, I’m a tax geek not an accounting dork. I knew it was something I ran across during the CPA exam at some point a thousand years ago.

  47. The OP sounds kind of flaky, but so does the BSO’s funding efforts.

  48. WhirlyBird says:

    @BigBoat: Not necessarily. Most reputable charities will give no-name receipts for cash donations. The IRS just wants to see the receipt.

  49. scoosdad says:

    @nacoran: Great idea. My beef with charities is that once you do give, it’s like opening up Pandora’s box. A long long time ago, I sent a small donation to the American Heart Association in memory of a friends mom who had passed away. The family had requested donations to the Heart Association in lieu of flowers, and so I did.

    This was about seven years ago. Not a month goes by when I don’t get an envelope from the American Heart Association, which immediately goes into the shredder. It’s impossible to give anonymously under this kind of circumstance because the charity wants to let the family know who responded.

    I gave a small donation to one animal care charity, and now I get twelve different ones vying for my dollars with all kinds of junk, address stickers, etc in the mail. It’s getting to the point where these guys are shooting themselves in the foot by turning fundraising into a commodity, and the result is folks like me refusing to give anymore.

  50. BStu says:

    Not to be all insider here, but I work in arts admin so I have some background on these things. First off, any reputable arts organization maintains a “Do not call” list of their own so if you don’t like getting calls like this, it is very easy to opt out. Just call their number and ask for it. You can probably specify not to get ticket sales calls or donation solicitation calls if only one bothers you. If you don’t trust to ask the person calling you to do this, just call their box office or donation office the next day and they absolutely will help.

    Also, its not unusual to send a pledge form like this when someone called asks for information. What is unusual is accusing a customer of making a fraudulent pledge. A pledge form is sent to give you something to respond to if you choose to make a donation. Its not meant to be presumptuous at all. Its supposed to just be a suggestion. It sounds like someone made a mistake here, obviously, and accusing you of fraud is entirely out of line. I’m sure the BSO would agree, though, and I’d urge Ian to contact them. I believe they have an in-house calling campaign, so you may end up talking directly to the calling manager. They will want to hear about your experience. I know we are used to hearing about company’s that don’t care about complaints or “take them very seriously”, but this is a non-profit here. A big non-profit, I’ll grant you, but you really should try giving them a call to get this squared away.

    I do want to say one other thing, though. As far as just paying for tickets not being enough, you should know that for most non-profit arts organizations ticket sales only cover a small portion of their budget. Often less than half. No one expects everyone to give a donation, but those who can give really make a difference. In addition to their concerts, many arts groups have extensive community and educational outreach programs that are also supported by your donation. I wouldn’t suggest that any arts consumer has an obligation to give, but I don’t think it hurts to ask. I know it seems like charities as “wasting money” on things like this, but the truth is that they aren’t. Donation direct mail and calling campaigns are a solid investment for a non-profit. I can understand if you don’t want to get them, and you can absolutely call the organization directly and ask to stop receiving calls or mail if you think solicitation callers aren’t logging your requests. But charities do this because it works and they need to do it to serve their mission. In the US, the generous support of donors is absolutely essential for the multitude of services provided by private non-profits. Especially for arts organizations where government and corporate support has been stagnant at best.

  51. @lawmage: “A naked promise to donate money is totally unenforceable.”

    plustax is right in principle, though — some courts HAVE enforced pledges as collectible, and some legislatures have made them so by state law. Certain charities that collect most of their money by pledge drives have lobbied HARD for this change to law. California is one jurisdiction that’s had several very interesting cases where pledges are in some cases enforceable. (And the reason plustax would likely be aware of it is that there have been a couple of interesting cases regarding the tax implications of rescinded pledges.)

    I know they don’t typically teach this is contract law (and the theories of law under which courts have allowed it are a catastrophic mess of variant reasoning), but if you do any legal work with charitable organizations, you run into it pretty quickly.

  52. nycguy says:

    Amazing. All these posts and not one person has pointed out that the illustration for the post uses Arthur Fiedler of the Boton POPS, which is an entirely different organization than the Boston Symphony.

    Other than that, I agree wholeheartedly. For the last 20 years I have not bought tickers for any performances at the Brooklyn Academy of Music except anonymously with cash, because of their aggressive telemarketing.

    And sure they would apologize if I called them on it. Apologies are easy but meaningless as long as they hire the same telemarketers over and over again.

  53. Propaniac says:

    I have to say I agree with everyone wondering why Ian didn’t say at some point, “I did not make this pledge.” Even in the phone call, all it says is that he told them they weren’t getting his credit card number over the phone. (And if he HAD actually made the pledge, that would be a rather odd thing for him to say since he had already received all those mailings, and would give the impression that he just didn’t want to pay up on the pledge he had made.)

  54. Shadowman615 says:

    I wonder why he chose to argue with her about giving her a credit card number. It’s besides the point. Simply tell her you never made the pledge, she’s not going to get any money from you EVER, and to never call again. End of story.

  55. gaberussell says:

    @nycguy:

    If you go to the BSO website, you’ll see that the Pops is a subsidiary of the BSO, and they share members.

    I’m also pretty sure that the guy in the picture isn’t Arthur Fiedler.

  56. LinerNotesDanny says:

    @greenpepper: You’re kidding, right? I’m not exactly a fan, but Keith Lockhart is as well-trained and hard-working as any professional you can name, and his talent has brought him to national prominence in his field. Keep that in mind, then look over the salaries of highly-paid entertainers (talents like Dr. Phil and Simon Cowell earn in the eight figures), and I’ll think you’ll realize that $600K is something of a bargain.