The state of donation; why is the fundraising community in denial over the irritation that we can cause?

The state of donation; why is the fundraising community in denial over the irritation that we can cause?

Over the last decade a slow motion drama has unfolded between fundraisers and the public from whom they want to fundraise. As fundraisers have had to raise ever more amounts to fund the work of their organisations, they have blocked their ears to the voices of donors who have tried to tell them that they don’t like the techniques they now deploy.

We have told ourselves that a mild irritation is a small price to pay for raising the money that changes lives. We have kidded ourselves that the end justifies the means. 

We have hidden our heads in the sand when people tell us their stories of being ‘besieged’, of the multiple mailings they have received, of the telephone calls at home. Ironically, we have indeed let face-to-face fundraising act as the loathsome villain for the whole of fundraising. The volume of outcry from journalists and the public have let us be willing dupes and believe that face-to-face is the bad apple of the bunch. Face-to-face is not even the tip of the iceberg. Research we released just before Christmas shows that face-to-face is third on the list after fundraising ‘on your doorstep’ and ‘telephone calls at home’. 
Modern fundraising techniques can be hugely successful, but the very basis of that success is also the basis of the irritation. They literally and metaphorically stop people in their tracks.
Will we still have this logjam in five or ten years’ time? Will the fundraising community go on accepting irritation as a necessary by-product of modern fundraising. I don’t think we should. Aside from all the evidence we gather, two incidences for me have been critical. 
As a company we have bought a couple of balloons in a virtual fundraising balloon race. For no major reason I decided not to take part this autumn. The charity has my mobile number, so when they ring me and as the number comes on my screen, I ignore the calls. I would guess they have tried to ring me 30 times.  This feels to me like a bombardment of calls. Should we accept that its ok for a member of the public to be called 30 times without a response. When is enough, enough?
The second incident came out of a conversation with my dad. He’s a retired doctor. Active in his community and a donor to many charities. On a long car journey he told me about his frustration with the number of appeals and wondered whether the economics stacks up. He told me there is only one charity that has asked how often he wants to hear from them: Botton Village in North Yorkshire. From all the charities he supports, the only one that actually asks him as a donor what he wants is the one I first heard about on the fundraising circuit in the early 1990s. For all the talk of being donor-centric, of listening to supporters, only one (tiny) charity has been brave and foresighted over the last 25 years to regularly ask its supporters what they want. How depressing.
What is the fundraising community doing about this? All the Institute of Fundraising’s codes, the PFRA and the FRSB are a huge achievement and make me proud. But if every charity kept to every code would public irritation even diminish, let alone disappear? My heart says yes, my head says no. 

We need to do more. Here are three simple ideas:

The ‘I don’t give on the street’ label pin. The telephone preference service (TPS) allows people to opt out of sales calls from anybody. We need some kind of visible symbol that people can wear which basically says ‘I don’t give to street fundraisers’. This would be a kind of TPS on the street. Street fundraisers would need to agree to simply ignore anybody wearing the badge.
The ‘I don’t give on the doorstep’ sticker. If people don’t want to give on the doorstep they should be allowed to opt out just as they are able to with the telephone. A simple sticker in the front window, as there used to be with free newspapers, would suffice.
FRSB membership means charities should ask their donors what they want. I think every fundraising direct marketing team that aspires to good practice should ask their donors how often they want to hear from them. Simple as that.
I realise that if these three proposals were implemented they would reduce the number of people who give. That makes me pause for thought. However I think the fundraising community needs to accept that the level of annoyance and aggravation felt about fundraising needs to be reduced. The current level is not sustainable.
These three suggestions would provide a simple way in which people can opt out of being asked and through which charities could begin to reduce the pressure cooker of frustration that many people feel.

Joe Saxton


Has Joe raised a good point? Or has your pressure cooker been turned up? Leave us a comment below.


This article also features on the Guardian's Voluntary Sector Network here. Joe is a regular columnist for the Network.

Submitted by Peter Maple (not verified) on 10 Jan 2013


Joe, as always, has some interesting points to make but really, why ignore 30 attempts to have a conversation. One polite, assertive, reply saying thank you but no thank you and no more calls plese will do the trick 19/20 and for the 20th they should be reported to the FRSB as that is not just bad fundraising but rubbish marketing.

All we have to do is say no thank you with a smile. What's the problem. If you still feel guilty perhaps you need to see a therapist!

Submitted by Katie Brewin (not verified) on 10 Jan 2013


Well said Joe. Like most people working in or with the voluntary sector, I am also a member of the public and a donor and I too have felt that irritation. Of course charities must maximise funds but not at the expense of good public relations. PR is often seen as less important than fundraising but it's worth remembering that once public trust and respect is lost, it isn't easy to regain - and all charities stand to lose if any one of us persists in ignoring this.

Submitted by Stephen Pidgeon (not verified) on 10 Jan 2013


I don't agree Peter. I'm happy to say no to anyone, I'm sure Joe is. But if I chose not to respond, that is my choice and 30 (or 10 if Joe was exaggerating!) is plain rude. Charities are often rude and I get wild because they are spoiling the sector. The public will, one day bite us as a punishment.
Sadly I suspect the calls were coming from an agency that was not being monitored closely enough by fundraisers who had handed over control when they shouldn't have done.

Submitted by Graham Appleton (not verified) on 10 Jan 2013


Definitely an interesting topic and one that needs to be discussed. Being able to make a choice and opt out of these approaches is definitely something that warrants further investigation, as it's beneficial to no one that people who intrinsically hate these techniques should be approached. Overall though I think that this polemic falls into a general trap inherent in the UK fundraising market, that the sector somehow owes something to the public at large. Fundraisers serve the people or causes they support and they are sales people, not good Samaritans. Charities continue to use these techniques because they are successful and because they fund valuable work. That these practices should be stopped because they cause mild irritation to some people is an arbitrary "first-world" point; the effect on the people they support if they stopped is by far the more important point. Once valid and robust customer insight begins to demonstrate that the approaches are having a negative effect on a charities ability to fundraise and operate generally then they should stop, but not a solitary second before that.

Submitted by New Born Baby (not verified) on 10 Jan 2013


An "Opt out on the street label pin" is a dreadful idea that would allow the tiny number of tiny-minded people kicking up all the fuss about street fundraising that they are right.

There is already a "No cold calling" sign people can put in their doors.

(And yes, my pressure cooker has been turned up.)

Submitted by Jon Scourse (not verified) on 10 Jan 2013


The most successful enterprises spend a great deal of time and cost in researching the needs of their customers and potential new customers. I agree with the view that asking donors how they would like to see the relationship with a chosen charity is just common sense and the evident success of the few that have done this should inspire more confidence in this approach. Its also efficient as costs can be significantly reduced if, for example, a donor opts to receive information two or three times per year.

Like Joe, I have experienced direct complaints about charities and one neighbour amended his will to cancel his substantial legacy with a major UK charity following excessive mailings and - in particular - unwanted unsolicited gifts and calls despite several requests for them to desist. Of course, the charity concerned will never be aware that the long term damage is far greater than the short term gains.

Submitted by Michael Hodgson (not verified) on 11 Jan 2013


Jon, the example you give of the neighbour who's changed his will, sadly, illustrates the real problem. It's not the techniques, it's the 'back-end'. He requested that they didn't send things, they still did. Now all the regs, codes etc indicate that they'd stop. Changing the regs etc wouldn't affect the outcome here, the problem is that they ignored him, or (likely in my view) their system / processes are rubbish...

I'd suggest that part of the problem here is that charities are reluctant to spend time and money 1. on the systems/processes and 2. researching their donors, because it's an upfront cost. And it affects the fundraising ratio.

It takes a brave charity to say "we're spending £1m on a custom, all singing all dancing database so we can look after donors properly", because although it'll save them that sum, or earn them that sum many times over, it's seen as a waste.

Submitted by New Born Baby (not verified) on 11 Jan 2013


Am I missing something Michael? Why should we go the effort of helping people to opt out on the street? As you yourself said, a lot people didn't know they wanted to give until they were asked - why should we go to the effort of reducing that pool of people in the first place. A little more effort in training fundraisers how to politely engage people in the first place would be a much better use of resources.

Submitted by David Stables (not verified) on 11 Jan 2013


Joe is again right. We are a small charity and mail out only once a year, never if donors opt out. All information is on our regularly updated website But of course we miss out against the avalanche of well paid professional saturation fundraisers - and daytime TV shamelessly exploiting emotional blackmail misrepresenting starving children.

Submitted by MichaeL Hodgson (not verified) on 11 Jan 2013


Re: New Born Baby. My suspicion, and it is nothing more scientific than that I'm afraid, would be that only those who already "hate chuggers", would bother to get the opt-out badge, that means that you could stop wasting your fundraising time (there's only so many people you can ask), on these people, and focus on those who don't yet know they'd like to give.

It may well be of course, that the world and his dog flock to grab the pin badges, fastidiously wearing them every day, in which case either a) we've shot ourselves in the foot, b) we've seriously underestimated how much people hate this kind of interaction, c) we need to find something more engaging than the current methods and style, or d) all of the above.

David stables provides a perfect example of why fundraisers need to ask. I think if he contacted people more often - giving them a choice, of course, he'd see an increase in donations. I now know that his website is regularly updated - how often in the next year do you think I'll check it (never mind donate) - even though I may care a bit about the issue they're addressing?

Submitted by Kate Griffin (not verified) on 6 Feb 2013


The difference between chuggers and collection tins is huge, so I'm not surprised people's responses were different. With a collection tin, you put some money in and the "transaction" is over. With chuggers, they're trying to sign you up for a long-term commitment and get you to hand over your financial details in the street. You can't make a one-off donation to a chugger even if you wanted to: it's that long-term commitment or nothing. It's perfectly clear to me why people are more relaxed about collecting tins than about chugging.

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