Face-to-face fundraising: a case for the defence

I found myself skirting around an oncoming street fundraiser myself this morning on Camden High Street as I hurried towards the station, which gave me pause for thought.

You see, even people who work for charities sometimes cross the street to avoid street fundraisers, clipboard primed and aiming at divesting you of your well-earned income for a health/dog/disability/poverty relief/environment (delete as applicable) charity.

So is it any great surprise that the Sunday Telegraph ran a piece  revealing that there were 2,360 complaints about street and door-to-door fundraising last year?

And isn’t it practically received wisdom that being approached by a street fundraiser is the most irritating thing that can happen to you in one of Britain’s city centres?

First, let’s put the complaints into perspective – that’s 2,360 complaints out of a total of around 31 million interactions with street fundraisers last year. Doing the sums, I make that a complaint rate of less than 0.01 per cent – far less than your average episode of X-Factor, I’d wager.

And our face-to-face fundraising at ActionAid, is always done in a very precisely-targeted way to ensure best use of the money spent on it, so the majority of people in the UK won’t ever encounter someone fundraising for us in this way over the course of a year anyway.

Time for the usual arguments – how much are charities spending on this stuff and why do we do it when all it does is wind people up?

The bottom line is that face-to-face fundraising, whether it’s in the street or door-to-door, actually works, raising hundreds of thousands (and sometimes millions) of pounds to help us change lives around the world. Without the income from face-to-face fundraising, we just wouldn’t be able to do some of our lifesaving work.

When face-to-face is done properly – and we try to ensure the PFRA’s code of conduct  is obeyed at all times – it’s neither intrusive, nor what some outside the charity world deem to be a massive waste of cash.

In fact, it offers a great return on investment and represents a responsible use of some of the money that people have been generous enough to donate to us.

Second, face-to-face fundraising appeals to some people far more than the blare of the traditional advertising bugle (honestly!). It’s a more conversational style that gives interested people the chance to ask questions and find out more.

It can really work well as a two-way street and we will always insist that our fundraisers do not push the issue if someone doesn’t want to talk to them (incidentally, this blog takes an interesting look at one street fundraiser’s own perspective).

Child sponsorship is the main way most people choose to give money to us: by its very nature, it’s a relatively big commitment compared to, say, your standard £2 a month direct debit. It costs £15 per month, and it involves a one-to-one relationship with an individual child, usually over many years – so uncommitted givers who quit after three months are not what we need.

The quality of the relationship we have with every single person who donates is critically important – every single person who signs up needs to feel like they are joining our family of supporters.

That’s why we make sure that in-house, we also use thorough and effective follow-ups to welcome new supporters and make them feel valued.

The nightmare stories of overly pushy fundraisers pursuing people headlong down the street while dressed in your charity’s T-shirts are not only a terrible way of fundraising, but also do massive damage not just to one charity, but to the sector as a whole.

In short, this isn’t about whether or not face-to-face fundraising is a valuable tool for charities – it most certainly is, or it’d be abandoned in a heartbeat, just like any other form of fundraising that isn’t pulling its weight.

Instead, it’s about how to make sure it’s done carefully, respectfully, and in a way that makes people feel connected to, rather than repelled by the charity.

Stuart Fowkes, PR manager, ActionAid UK