A telephone rings in a home. The caller asks for a donation to a charity.
The caller might be from InfoCision Management Corp. of Bath Township — not the charity.
Need to talk to someone about a Time Warner cable issue? Or Verizon cellular service?
The person on the other end of the call might be at InfoCision.
One of the area’s largest employers, InfoCision has its roots in conservative religious fundraising, but has grown to serve many industries in raising money, gathering information, spreading messages and serving customers.
Today, InfoCision says its client list has expanded well beyond charitable nonprofits such as the March of Dimes, American Diabetes Association and Easter Seals to include AT&T, Little Tikes, for-profit college Strayer University and other major corporations.
The company employs 1,000 in the Akron area and 4,400 total, with other call centers in small to mid-size cites not far from home: Gallipolis, Dayton, Boardman and Austintown in Ohio; Clarksburg and Huntington, W.Va.; New Castle, Pa.; and a year-old facility in Fort Erie, Ontario.
But as the company’s profile rises, so does the scrutiny.
Company executives offered an extensive interview to the Beacon Journal after Bloomberg Markets magazine reported in September that fundraising for charities often resulted in more money to InfoCision than to the nonprofits, stirring angry reaction from donors.
Bloomberg showed that in public documents filed with Maine and the IRS, the American Cancer Society ended a 2010 fundraiser owing $113,006 to InfoCision.
The charity and InfoCision dispute that, but have declined further details.
Afterward, charities and InfoCision acknowledged that fundraising scripts were being reviewed and some modified.
And in the Beacon Journal interview, company executives offered a rare glimpse of operations.
InfoCision, founded in Akron in 1982, is the nation’s second-largest privately held telemarketing firm.
While it does not publicly report financial information, officials said in the interview that they expect revenues of $180 million this year, up about 12.5 percent from $160 million in 2007, the last year before the economy fell into a deep recession.
But the profit side has become more challenging, according to Carl Albright, whose departure as CEO was announced after the interview. In better years, profits were about 10 percent of sales. Now, profits are down to 5 percent, he said.
The growth in revenues has come from a concerted effort to increase its commercial clients, Albright said.
The numbers show it: In 2007, only 8 percent of InfoCision’s revenues came from commercial services and the rest from fundraising. This year, 40 percent is expected to come from commercial services.
Albright said when the economy spun into the deep recession, nonprofits pulled back on fundraising. The company looked elsewhere to make up the difference.
The expansion of commercial work is exemplified by the addition of clients such as Verizon and Time Warner and the opening a year ago of InfoCision’s first office outside the country — Fort Erie, Ontario — to service Rogers Communications, a major Canadian wireless phone and cable provider.
Nuances in fundraising
Still, though, 60 percent of revenues come from fundraising, and company officials said that the Bloomberg report did not adequately explain that there are three types of recruitment and fundraising targets: New-donor acquisition, lapsed donors and active donors.
Telemarketing campaigns aimed at active donors generally are highly successful, the company said.
It offered a compilation of direct fundraising appeals showing that for every dollar raised with active donors, the charity received about 62 cents. The rest went to InfoCision in fees.
Inactive donors were more challenging: 35 cents for each donated dollar went to the charity.
The most expensive campaigns are those that attempt to generate lists of new donors from cold calls, known in the trade as “prospecting.”
People who donate through those campaigns on average give nothing to the charity, according to the InfoCision data table. Instead, all of the donation might go to InfoCision to cover its costs of finding that new list of future donors. In some cases, the charities lose money on that part of the campaign.
It’s those nuances in the business that have created problems.
InfoCision accepted a $75,000 settlement with the Ohio Attorney General’s Office this year in a controversy regarding telemarketer scripts that misled donors on how much money went to charities. Other allegations cited callers representing themselves as volunteers instead of paid solicitors.
InfoCision Chief of Staff Steve Brubaker said that the confusion lies within the overall fundraising budgets of national charities. They may set aside 20 to 25 percent of contributions for the cost of raising the money through multiple methods, including telemarketing. The other 75 to 80 percent is used by the charity for its missions.
That’s the number that was sometimes quoted to donors.
Brubaker said it wasn’t fair of Bloomberg to look at individual campaigns.
Different profit margins
Michael Nilsen, vice president of public affairs for the trade group Association of Fundraising Professionals, said that what donors hear should be a consideration.
“If [telemarketers] are not giving the straight numbers, that’s definitely an issue and that hurts the confidence, not just of these particular organizations, but all charitable organizations when they’re trying to fundraise,” he said. “If the script is misleading, then absolutely we have an issue with that.”
But he also acknowledged that there are different profit margins.
In “telemarketing, you are using lists. You may very well lose money. That may happen and you may get a very slim return. Ideally from that list, you use the list of people who responded and [the return] goes up,” Nilsen said.
“To me, the issue is what kind of information is presented and how are they responding. There’s nothing wrong with telemarketing. It is definitely an expensive way [to raise funds].
Regarding the Ohio attorney general complaint, Albright said mistakes can occur in phone conversations when 3,200 employees are involved in either making or taking 45 million phone calls in a year.
Calls on behalf of politically conservative Christian and Republican Party causes and candidates have long been a part of InfoCision’s corporate culture, based on the beliefs of founder Gary Taylor.
Taylor started the company at his home after working for pioneer televangelist Rex Humbard. Among his early clients were Humbard and another nationally known religious figure, Jerry Falwell.
That kind of work continues to be an important business.
Job postings last week for some of the InfoCision sites offer hints as to the type of work at each.
The Austintown and Clarksburg sites advertise jobs in the political call center working on behalf of conservative organizations, among them the National Republican Congressional Committee.
An advertisement for an opening at the Dayton site said: “Is God Calling You? Become part of a family environment while making a difference in the world! … As a Call Center Sales Representative with InfoCision you will help handle Inbound/Outbound Christian and Conservative Political fundraising calls to help preserve Christian values …”
The Akron and Huntington centers offer jobs serving wireless communications providers.
The company also says it is a fundraiser for the National Rifle Association, College Republican National Committee and the American Center for Law and Justice, a legal advocate for such causes as public display of the Ten Commandments and crosses, pro-life action against women’s health organizations and clinics and defense of traditional marriage.
InfoCision and the Taylors have been significant benefactors in the Akron area.
The Taylors in 2004 created the Gary L. and Karen S. Taylor Institute for Direct Marketing at the University of Akron with a gift of $3.6 million to their alma mater. The institute’s mission is to train students in direct marketing, including telemarketing.
In 2009, they contributed $10 million for 20-year naming rights for the newly constructed UA football stadium.
The company also sponsors high school football fields in districts where it has offices: Copley, Green and Revere.
Taylor semiretired in 2004 when he promoted Albright to CEO. His family, including wife Karen and children Craig and Lindsay, continue to work at the company.
In 2010, the day after InfoCision Stadium opened, Gary Taylor suffered a heart attack that affected his ability to continue with the company.
About a month after the Bloomberg story appeared in papers nationwide, including the Beacon Journal, and on a Today Show segment, the company named Craig Taylor to succeed Albright as CEO. InfoCision officials have declined interview requests with the Taylor family and new President Steve Boyazis.
But in news releases, the company said the change in leadership had “absolutely nothing to do with and is in no way related to the recent misguided Bloomberg story.”
The company said it was a long-planned succession strategy.
Before his promotion, Craig Taylor, worked as executive vice president focused on long-term strategy and growth.
Albright, in a phone interview a few weeks after he stepped down, said he always knew after Taylor fell ill that the family would want the son to take over.
“My only disappointment is I wish we would have gotten out in front of this [Bloomberg story] sooner so it didn’t appear that I was the scapegoat. My public image has really been tarnished, but I can deal with that. I think [InfoCision is] going to do great. I think Craig is going to do great.”