Eye contact. Big smile. “Can you spare two minutes?” This is the technique of the cheery chugger, whose job is to get you to sign a direct debit and donate regularly to a charity.
Brought to the UK by Greenpeace in the late 1990s, today there are 40 charities in the UK using chuggers at any one time.
Chugger – a blend of the words charity and mugger – is not a term that charities use. Their preferred description is face-to-face fundraiser, but it all comes down to the same thing. Face-to-face fundraising consists of street fundraisers and those who go to door-to-door.
But are chuggers a useful way for the voluntary sector to recruit supporters who would not otherwise give to charity? Or does their approach risk giving charities a bad name?
There is no doubt that chuggers irritate people. A report on donating to charity in the 21st century, published by nfpSynergy earlier this year, said views canvassed on street fundraising “were usually negative and sometimes quite extreme”.
One person said: “There’re whole gangs of them too many of them. They’re not trustworthy, they are paid, and aggressive. I don’t want to give out my bank details on the street.”
Such views are acknowledged by some in the charity world. Cherie McClintock, donor marketing manager at the Alzheimer’s Society, says negative perceptions of street fundraising have created a “difficult environment” for street fundraisers to work in. “But we continue to try and turn this around,” she adds.
Despite such qualms, the numbers speak for themselves. More than half a million people a year say “yes” when asked by chuggers to donate to charity. The latest figures from the Public Fundraising Regulatory Association show that 210,000 people signed up with street fundraisers and 303,000 on doorsteps in the year ending March 2007.
The PFRA estimates that 85% of charity supporters recruited by chuggers are under the age of 40, up to three-quarters of whom do not support any other charity.
Social care charities argue that using chuggers to sign up supporters, especially young supporters, is very important to them. Charities also say that chuggers do valuable work raising awareness about the plight of vulnerable people with the public.
“There is still a lot of stigma around mental health issues, which is reflected in the challenges we face when fundraising,” says Caroline Corr, head of donor marketing at mental health charity Mind. “Face-to-face fundraising is crucial. We are able to reach out to people who we would otherwise find it difficult to reach, such as younger people.
“As the latest official statistics show, this group is more likely to hold negative attitudes towards people with mental health problems. So it’s vital that we find accessible ways to increase understanding.”
Raising awareness in turn brings in cash. Chuggers are Mind’s most successful fundraisers. Last year they recruited 2,500 supporters, says Corr, making up a “substantial percentage” of Mind’s income.
NSPCC chuggers signed up more than 7,000 supporters last year, who accounted for nearly 4% of its fundraising income. To date, supporters recruited by chuggers have given more than £16.5m to the children’s charity. The NSPCC says these recruits are a “younger, more affluent type of donor”, and they often give a much higher gift every month – typically £106 a year – than through other methods. Other charities tell a similar story. Scope signed up 6,000 supporters using face-to-face fundraising last year. Mencap has used chuggers since 2000. Michael Naidu, Mencap’s head of donor marketing, says the young people its street recruiters sign up are “unresponsive” to the traditional methods charities use when asking for money.
Once these recruits are signed-up, there is nothing to stop them later cancelling their direct debit once left in peace to reflect – and read the small print (see case study).
However, cancellation rates (known as churning levels) are a relatively taboo subject among charities. When we asked 10 charities how long supporters recruited by chuggers stay with them, only the NSPCC gave a clear answer. “After three years, 65% of our donors are still giving to us,” the NSPCC states. “From our first face-to-face fundraising campaign in 2000, 40% of donors are still giving.”
Charities are slightly more open about early cancellation rates. Mencap says between 25% and 40% of donors cancel their direct debit within the first year, Mind says 60% continue after the first 12 months, and the NSPCC says 73% of donors still give after one year.
For the charities, then, chugging is cost-effective compared with other fundraising methods. Clearly there are costs involved in employing teams of chuggers – the Alzheimer’s Society says it costs between £70 and £120 to recruit one supporter – but, for the charities, the return on their investment is good.
Charities cannot afford to be complacent about fundraising. The latest figures in Charity Trends 2007 reveals that donations to social care charities are significantly down, with many people choosing to give to international disasters instead.
As an NSPCC spokesperson puts it: “Some people hate being stopped on the street. But thousands of people don’t mind at all and have signed the direct debit forms to prove it.”
Until people stop signing up with them, chuggers will continue to play a key role in charities’ domestic fundraising efforts.
Jane’s encounter with a chugger
I was totally caught off guard when a young woman knocked on my door one evening last summer claiming to be from the International Deaf Children’s Society, writes London-based solicitor Jane.
Over the next 30 minutes she kept me at the front door employing every tactic known to man to persuade me to sign a form agreeing to pay the apparent minimum payment of £8 a month to the charity, despite me telling her repeatedly that I only really wanted to make a one-off donation of about £20.
She refused to leave me the form so I could think about it, refused to leave me a leaflet about the charity unless I signed up first, and refused to give me an address for the charity so I could send them a cheque directly.
In the end, feeling defeated and wanting her to leave, I signed up to pay £8 a month after she advised me that I could then cancel my direct debit two or three months later, thereby still making roughly the same size donation that I had said I would be prepared to make.
As soon as she’d gone and I had closed the front door, I felt I’d been had. Closer inspection of the form – which until that point I had not been given any time to read – revealed why.
Firstly, there was no mention of any minimum payment, £8 or otherwise. Secondly, there was an option to pay quarterly or annually that had not been mentioned to me but might have been far more appropriate in my circumstances. And thirdly – and most distressingly – the small print revealed that the first £24 of any money I donated would cover my ‘supporter subscription rate’. Only after that would any money I gave count as a donation to the charity!
I immediately cancelled my direct debit. I felt totally conned, but also deeply disappointed that someone claiming to be on the side of vulnerable children was actively encouraging me to cancel a payment at exactly the point at which those very
I complained to the charity, who promptly wrote back apologising but explaining that the woman was not employed by them but by Home Fundraising, a private agency they used to recruit supporters on their behalf.
Home Fundraising then also wrote to me assuring me that ‘under no circumstances is it general practice to inform donors that they can cancel after two months’ and that I should have been given the charity’s address when I asked for it.
Don’t get me wrong, I do understand the need for charities to raise money. But this whole experience has made me deeply cynical about some of the methods they use.
Charities need to balance their need to make money with the risk of eroding the public’s faith in the good work they do by using underhand tactics – or employing others to use them on their behalf.
I, for one, will never pass on my bank details so that a charity can extract money from my account each month again.
GOOD CHUGGING PRACTICE
● Always end a conversation in a polite and respectful manner.
Attitudes to mental illness in England 2007
This article appeared in the 27 September issue under the headline “Stand and deliver!”