Is it fair to criticise face-to-face?

10 Jan 2012 Voices

A London councillor recently declared his intention to rid London's streets of "annoying" face-to-face fundraisers. Chester Mojay-Sinclare explores why the councillor's actions may not be unfounded.

(c) Howard Sayer

A London councillor recently declared his intention to rid London's streets of "annoying" face-to-face fundraisers. Chester Mojay-Sinclare explores why the councillor's actions may not be unfounded.

It’s widely known that a significant portion of the general public despises face-to-face fundraising. You only need to consider the rise of the popular term “chugger” to see this.

So what is it that gives this industry such a bad name? Well, the answer to that is quite apparent - one need only ask their neighbour for their opinion, to obtain a reasonably accurate depiction of the nation’s disdain for face-to-face fundraising.

As stated by Cllr Paul Convery, from Islington Council, who recently announced that he is making efforts to get face-to-face fundraising off Islington’s streets, “I sympathise with charities. It’s not easy right now, but this is a bad way to raise money, for three reasons: a) it’s annoying people and damaging the brand of the charity, b) they don’t make a big enough percentage of the money, it’s going to the agencies and c) it’s just not a good way to make money – there are other better ways.”

All these points contain an element of truth, although I am unsure about the claim that it damages the charity’s brand, it appears that most of those who are annoyed by face-to-face fundraising choose to ignore the fundraiser and their cause entirely. I asked to survey 200 people about this and the results came back that only 12.5 per cent strongly disapprove of charities using face-to-face fundraisers. So it seems unlikely to be doing too much damage right now. Nevertheless, whether you subscribe to either view, this puts doubt on many fundraising agencies’ claims that their high fees are justified because their service generates both revenue and awareness for a cause.

A worthy 'investment'?

However, what was most enlightening about the survey results was that over 60 per cent of those who approved of charities using face-to-face fundraisers disapproved of the costs involved, when told that they are around £90 per acquisition. This is very concerning, it shows a far more shocking picture, a picture of informed disapproval being disguised by the approval of the uninformed. It suggests brand contamination may be waiting in the wings. Is face-to-face fundraising a ticking time bomb?

I recently spoke to the managing director of one face-to-face fundraising agency, who predictably claimed that his agency offered good value for money. He compared face-to-face fundraising to an investment, in which the charity doubles their money in only a few years. Affording him a level of graciousness that was unfortunately not reciprocated in that meeting, I chose to keep my mouth shut. However, his well rehearsed and, on the surface, quite convincing statement, is in fact utterly ludicrous on consideration. When one makes an investment, they get a return on their own funds; if I invest £150 today and receive £300 in a few years, I have done well. Yet, if I invested £150 today, am charged a £50 admin fee for doing so and later receive a £100, I have not. It is the latter that equates to face-to-face fundraising; the donor pays for the acquisition costs of their support. In fact, to compare face-to-face fundraising with an investment at all is to take the charity’s perspective with a total disregard for the donor’s kind contribution, without which they would make a loss.

This may seem like a fairly critical comment on the value of face-to-face fundraising, but this is not entirely representative of my view. While, like many, I believe it is an ineffective and expensive method of raising funds, I also see that it does work. Furthermore, is it not true that every penny given to charity, regardless of the method used, is a penny better spent than it would be in one of the high street shops? I think that face-to-face fundraising’s days are numbered and there is good reason to be concerned about brand contamination, but I’d like to see a sufficient replacement introduced before it is banished from our high streets entirely. Nevertheless, it seems that 32 per cent of those surveyed already think that this time has come.


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