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What I really think about ‘chuggers’

Street fundraiser
What I really think about ‘chuggers’

Now that I no longer work at the PFRA, I guess I’m free to say what I really think about so-called ‘chuggers’. I could never really do that during the latter part of my four and a half years as head of communications at the Public Fundraising Regulatory Association because I was constrained by the corporate line. But no longer. So here goes, here’s what I really think about ‘chuggers’:

I have nothing but the highest respect and admiration for the young men and women who spend day in, day out on fundraising’s literal and metaphorical front line. They do a fantastic job while remaining cheerful in the face of adversity. Moreover, the technique itself is a brilliant innovation and the pure essence of fundraising – trying to persuade some to support your charity in a two-minute one-to-one engagement.

Well, what did you think I was going to say?

But you’re probably thinking that can’t be all that far away from PFRA’s corporate position? Actually, I never spent much time giving my personal opinions about F2F during my time at the PFRA because we tended to play a very straight ‘we are the regulator’ bat.

But me, I’ve always been a fan of F2F.

I didn’t always like street fundraising

To be honest, that’s not entirely true. I didn’t always like street fundraisers. There was a time when I used to object to them quite strenuously. They used to make me feel guilty about not giving, and I didn’t like that, because I thought that giving was a personal choice and if I wanted to give to a charity, then I would do without someone ‘accosting’ me on the street.

This would have been late 90s, early noughties. At that time I was editing a waste management industry magazine that was based in Victoria. It seemed like every time I went out for lunch, there were these professional fundraisers (this was before the term ‘chugger’ had been coined) on Victoria Street. And they always seemed to be from either Greenpeace or Friends of the Earth, with whom I was regularly crossing editorial sabres, which just made it worse.

In February 2001, I was interviewed for the editorship of Professional Fundraising. When the publisher, Kevin Kibble, asked me what I though were the important current issues affecting fundraising I had no hesitation in mentioning street fundraisers and their potential impact on public trust.

What changed my mind? Simple. I got the job.

 

If F2F falls, all fundraising falls

As PF editor, my knowledge of fundraising soon came to encompass all the professional truisms, and it became very clear, very quickly, that street fundraising was, in principle, no different to any other form of fundraising, and the differences that existed were matters of degree:

  • F2F, like all, fundraising costs money to undertake. The difference is the degree of this cost – F2F being more cost-effective than many other forms of fundraising.
  • F2F, like all, fundraising has a breakeven point and a level of attrition associated with it. The difference is in the degree of these two factors. Street F2F has an attrition rate about 50-55 per cent in the first year; but, to my knowledge, attrition rates for other forms of fundraising have never been benchmarked. Breakeven points for different types of fundraising, including F2F, aren’t benchmarked.
    As my knowledge of fundraising came to encompass all the professional truisms,  it became very clear, very quickly, that street fundraising was, in principle, no different to any other form of fundraising.
  • F2F, like all, fundraising, enters someone’s personal space and asks them to perform a benevolent act for another person. The difference is in the method of this ‘intrusion’ into personal space. With a street fundraiser, it’s done physically, but at other times, personal space is entered virtually (pop-up ads, email, DRTV) or by proxy (telephone or direct mail). nfpSynergy’s latest research  shows that the method by which you enter donors’ personal spaces affects the degree of annoyance at this intrusion they feel as a result.
  • F2F, like all, fundraising – but especially individuals fundraising – has the potential to elicit negative feelings in those who don’t wish to be have their personal spaces entered and challenged in particular ways. The difference is in the degree that people react to it. And the history of fundraising tells us people have reacted to other methods of fundraising (especially DM and phone) with all the same objections they currently do for F2F.

 

If it is valid to object to any of these characteristics for F2F fundraising, then it equally valid is to transfer the same objection to all other forms of fundraising. In fact, not to do so would be completely illogical.

  • If you think it unacceptable to pay street fundraisers, why would you countenance paying trust fundraisers or agency direct marketers?
  • If you object to street fundraising incurring a cost per donor, how could you not also object to spending voluntary income on any form of donor acquisition?
  • If you really don’t like ‘chuggers’ because they make you feel ‘guilty’, how can you bear to watch Comic Relief?

 

If you object to any of these for F2F, you must necessarily hold these views for all fundraising.

Philosophically speaking, if F2F falls, then all fundraising falls, which is why F2F stands on the literal and metaphorical frontline.

And that’s what I meant when I said my objections to F2F had become untenable. With my newly-acquired fundraising knowledge, I could no longer object to street fundraisers because they made me feel guilty (that was my problem, not theirs), or that they asked me (I probably wouldn’t give if they hadn’t), or they got paid (I edited a magazine called PROFESSIONAL Fundraising for crying out loud!). If I persisted in these objections to F2F, then logically, I had to transfer all these objections to every other type of fundraising – and that would have made me a very poor editor of a fundraising magazine.

 

What I really think about the ‘anti-chugger brigade’

So I guess what I’m really saying in this blog, is that it’s not so much that I finally have a chance to say what I think about street fundraisers, but I can now say what I think about those people who object to F2F, which I could never do. When I was asked some damn fool question for the umpteenth time, I just had to bite my lip, grin and bear it, and go into professional ‘keep to the key messages’ PR mode.

There are four categories of people that object to F2F: public, media, politicians and from within the charity sector.
When I was asked some damn fool question for the umpteenth time, I just had to bite my lip, grin and bear it, and go into professional ‘keep to the key messages’ PR mode.

Only the public can really be excused for basing their antipathy to chuggers on a combination of gut feeling, personal prejudice and lack of accurate information. It’s the charity sector’s job to change these attitudes. Some members of the public are just not open to any kind of debate or discussion (I confidently predict that one of them will post in the comments box below), but for those who are, their failings to understand F2F (or any kind of fundraising) are our failings to explain it properly.

But for journalists, politicians and charity sector employees, falling back on personal prejudice is inexcusable. All have a responsibility to understand the issues correctly and engage in debate with those in the charity sector they disagree with. Most don’t.

Some are lazy. I was once interviewed by a BBC radio journalist who said to me: “Don’t’ worry, I won’t be asking you anything you haven’t been asked a hundred times before.” After the interview, I asked him why he asked the same questions he freely acknowledged every other journalist had already put to me. Sometimes, they assume that they already ‘know’ the facts so any attempt by the charity sector to explain it differently must be an attempt to hide what they already know to be ‘true’. It’s a circular, almost unwinnable argument: the more you try to change someone’s mind, the more this entrenches their current position.

The charity sector is desperately trying to have an engaged, evidence-based, meaningful debate. But we are met with tub-thumping, drum-banging prejudice at almost every turn.

Some seem to take some kind of pride in using their privileged position to attack charity fundraising. Local politicians and parliamentarians know playing the ‘chugger’ card will almost certainly get them into the news channels, irrespective of the paucity of their argument, knowing that many journalists will either be too lazy or simply disinclined to challenge them on their views (because the journalist already ‘knows’ all the relevant facts). The result is that they just become anti-fundraising rent-a-quotes, pandering to the gallery but saying very little of substance or merit.

And the same is true of the few names from within the sector that crop up time and time again when the media want someone from the charity sector to argue against street F2F. You’ll notice how they mostly come from fairly small organisations that don’t need to rely on mass-market individuals fundraising techniques.

I reserve my special ire for these rent-a-quotes from within the fundraising sector – especially consultants who object to the fact that F2F costs money (yes indeed, fundraising consultants complaining that charities are shelling out to third parties to raise money!).

The charity sector is desperately trying to have an engaged, evidence-based, meaningful debate, not just about F2F, but about all fundraising and beyond that about issues such as ceo salaries and the right to lobby for change. But we are met with tub-thumping, drum-banging prejudice at almost every turn. It’s especially galling to encounter it from within our own ranks.

So if you do work in the charity sector, before you leap into the fray, may I respectfully ask that you stop, and think about whether the argument you are about to make takes the debate forward. Ask yourself if you can support it with facts and evidence. Ask yourself if this argument applies to any other form of fundraising: if not, it probably doesn’t apply to F2F either; if it does, then your target is not just about F2F it’s about all fundraising, and you need to show yourself in your true colours. And ask yourself if it is based primarily on personal bias and whether ditching that gut feeling would allow you to search for reasoned evidence that might actually make it a better, more convincing, argument.

The standard of debate is already depressingly low. Please don’t drag it down any further just because you have a personal dislike for a particular method of asking the public for support.

Ian MacQuillin is the founder and director of Rogare, the fundraising think tank at Plymouth University's Centre for Sustainable Philanthropy. He has worked in fundraising since 2001 as editor of Professional Fundraising (2001-2006), account director at TurnerPR (2006-2009) and head of communications at the Public Fundraising Regulatory Association (2009-2013).

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