'Chuggers' or face-to-face street fundraisers?

By Jon Kelly
BBC News Magazine

Image caption,
Street fundraising is much maligned, even providing material for television comedy

Manchester has become the latest city to restrict the activities of street charity fundraisers - "chuggers" to the critics - but some observers warn good causes will have to become even more persistent to survive tough times. Is the antipathy between Britain's shoppers and fundraisers about to intensify?

Hi, can I stop you there? Do you have a minute to talk? Have you ever thought about giving to charity?

Not today? Mind how you go now.

With their brightly-coloured tabards, youthful energy and unflaggingly cheerful demeanours, face-to-face fundraisers have become as much a fixture of UK high streets as Marks and Spencer and late-night binge drinking.

To their advocates, they play a crucial role in keeping campaigns and benevolent organisations going at a time of economic uncertainty.

To detractors, however, these "chuggers" - a derogatory term, abbreviated from "charity muggers" - are a national nuisance who use emotional blackmail and harassment to shake down shoppers for direct debits.

Either way, the face of eliciting direct debit contributions in the UK is changing.

Manchester has become the latest city to restrict the practice, confining the bib-clad, clipboard-wielding battalions to four sites in its centre and allowing them only to ply their trade on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays between 0900 and 1800.

It is the 40th local authority to strike such an agreement with the fundraising industry's voluntary regulators - both a response to objections from sections of the press and public, and a recognition by the industry that it needed to assuage such sentiments.

The move may go some way towards placating the critics. But Sophie Hudson, who covers the fundraising industry for The Third Sector magazine, suspects that it could be offset by broader financial pressures on charities operating within the same precarious economic climate as the rest of the country.

"The main problem seems to be that there's going to be an increase in demand for services but they're facing cuts left, right and centre," she says.

"Even though face-to-face fundraising has attracted a lot of negative publicity, there may be a feeling that whatever works is what needs to be done."

This contradiction is framed by two key observations.

The first is that street fundraising is, for many charities, demonstrably effective.

According to the Public Fundraising Regulatory Association (PFRA), the method brings in up to 600,000 new regular donations each year and donors recruited face-to-face are worth £120m annually to good causes. It also estimates that up to 18% of those who make direct debit or standing order payments do so having been recruited in the street or on the doorstep.

The second is that the public, whenever asked, tend to express an aversion to the tactic. A 2009 survey suggested that two-thirds of people would cross the street to avoid them.

Though it may feel like it has been around for longer, the technique has been widely practised in the UK only since the 1990s. More recently, many charities have also begun expanding face-to-face tactics beyond the High Street and onto householders' doorsteps.

One critic of chugging who fears the situation could deteriorate is Lord Foulkes, a Labour peer and Member of the Scottish Parliament who introduced a motion at Holyrood urging ministers to do more to regulate the industry.

He says the conduct of street fundraisers has been the focus of an increasing number of complaints from his constituents in the Lothians.

"They feel harassed - they always feel there's an assumption that if they say 'no' they are being mean, when in fact they may already give generously to charity," he says.

"I can see that this is a tough climate for charities and they are having to do more with less. My concern is that this will force them into an even more aggressive approach."

The industry is used to fending off criticism, particularly over the use of private firms to raise funds. In 2010 a BBC Newsnight report warned that it would take the average donor more than a year to cover the fees involved in signing them up.

In response, the companies' watchdog said the firms provided a good return on the investment.

Likewise, PFRA chief executive Mick Aldridge insists that face-to-face fundraising is practised professionally according to the body's code of practice. He observes that only 0.6% of those signed up this way go on to make a complaint.

It is true, he acknowledges, that face-to-face fundraising has remained steady during the downturn and its aftermath despite direct main and telephone-generated income for charities having dropped off.

Yet he argues that, in a very even market, any good causes which suddenly decided to flood the nation's high streets with an increased number of bibs and tabards would encounter the law of diminishing returns.

"For the last eight to 10 years, the number of people signing up face-to-face has been remarkably stable - 500,000 to 600,000 each year," he says.

"It wouldn't make sense to throw out more and more fundraisers onto the street. People's attitudes would harden over time and it would prove less and less effective."

Those avowed critics of the practice will hope that he is right.

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