St John Ambulance has suspended its telephone and door-to-door fundraising activity after a story in The Sun newspaper alleged that its fundraising agency was telling fundraisers to specifically target elderly people living alone.
St John Ambulance has had a fundraising partnership with the agency Wesser International for 18 years. Wesser works exclusively for St John Ambulance in the UK, though it fundraises for other charities in Germany, Spain and Switzerland including WWF and the Red Cross.
The Sun was contacted by a whistleblower who had undertaken training at Wesser International and alleged that the trainer’s instructions to the trainee fundraisers directly contradicted the agency’s own written ethical policies.
The whistleblower reportedly told the newspaper that the Wesser trainer had advised the trainees that “People who live on their own and are old are easier to get to sign up” and that “He told us we could have a laugh or a joke with them and it would be easier to get donations from them.”
St John Ambulance issued a statement to say the charity was deeply concerned by the allegations and has suspended all activity with Wesser while it investigates the claims.
But it added that repeated requests to the newspaper to see the evidence it had been given had been denied.
Sue Killen, the charity’s chief executive, said: “We train all Wesser staff directly in the values and ethics of St John Ambulance and they are expected to live up to them when fundraising for us.
“Our recent internal audit of Wesser showed that they are working in line with the Institute of Fundraising's Code of Fundraising Practice, which is embedded in all our fundraising activity. We take our responsibilities to our donors and potential donors very seriously and we expect all of our fundraisers to do the same.
“Immediate and appropriate action will be taken if there is found to be any truth in the claims,” she said.
A statement from Wesser said the agency prides itself on being an honest and ethical company, which pays all its taxes and is a member of the Fundraising Standards Board.
“We are a responsible fundraising company, have detailed training and procedures manuals in place and the process requires that a fundraising statement is given to all before they become a supporter. This fundraising statement includes confirmation that St John Ambulance pay Wesser Ltd a fee.
“Furthermore we conduct verification and welcome calls to new supporters to confirm that this procedure has been followed by the fundraiser. We are regularly audited by our client charity and are members of the Fundraising Standards Board.”
Wesser told Civil Society News that it had asked The Sun to provide details of the trainer and training session mentioned in the story so it can investigate, but the paper had so far refused to share any more information.
Oliver Steele, Wesser’s UK advertising and branding manager, said: “We take all matters of this nature very seriously and all our trainers know that the targeting referred to is completely inappropriate behaviour.” He said that if such practice was proven, the trainer concerned would face immediate dismissal.
Steele added: “We will be taking action to ensure that this type of activity is eradicated but can assure you that this is not in any of our policies or training manuals. Wesser Ltd takes pride in the training of our fundraisers and we will again remind all of our fundraisers of the code of conduct, reinforcing the fundraising standards that everyone should comply.”
Wesser business model
The Sun story also claimed that Wesser takes 45 per cent of the cash it collects for the charity for the first two years of a donor’s contributions, plus a further 10 per cent of any third-year cash.
Wesser’s website explains the agency’s business model; it claims that it offers its charity partners a “no-risk fundraising option, preferring to be an integral part of the charity’s fundraising activities”.
“We ask for no upfront fees, only a commission that is based upon the value of the donations received by the charity over the initial term of the fundraising campaign.”
The St John Ambulance statement also sought to address this.
“It is common practice for charities to pay agencies for the use of their services and we make donors aware of this,” the charity said. “Wesser fundraisers are trained to make it explicit that they are paid on behalf of St John Ambulance and a donor will receive literature at the door providing this information as well. There is a detailed FAQ on our website that explains our door-to-door fundraising activity and information about how Wesser is paid is freely available.
“Fundraising through Wesser doesn’t require our charity to risk upfront costs, and we don’t pay anything if people don’t sign up. Most other fundraising requires upfront investment, so we find that working with Wesser is our most cost-effective way to reach new supporters.”
Letchworth-based Wesser says it raises £250m a year for its charity clients throughout Europe. In the UK its face-to-face campaigns have recruited more than 250,000 supporters and raised £20m for St John Ambulance since 1997. The agency hires around 600 UK fundraisers a year, paying each around £1,500 a month including commission.