Don't let critics of face-to-face get you down, says Peter Hills-Jones of the PFRA

He tells Susannah Birkwood that the abuse of street fundraisers is out of proportion

Peter Hills-Jones
Peter Hills-Jones

Peter Hills-Jones, the chief executive of the Public Fundraising Regulatory Association, has never done street or door-to-door fundraising himself, but says he feels great respect for the people that do it.

As part of his job, which he took up last November, he observes face-to-face fundraisers at work and often feels that the abuse many of them receive from members of the public is unjustified.

"When I go out with our compliance officers, I see how hard they work and the hours they spend on their feet, come rain or shine," he says. "They're often very young people who aren't paid vast amounts of money, and some of the comments directed towards them seem out of proportion."

The PFRA is the self-regulatory membership body for charities and agencies that carry out street and doorstep direct debit fundraising. It undertakes spot checks on fundraisers to ensure they are complying with the PFRA Rule Book and negotiates site-management agreements with councils across the UK, specifying the terms under which fundraisers operate in their areas.

Hills-Jones joined the PFRA in March 2014 as its policy and communications officer after a 14-year career in the public sector. He says his background – which includes advising the Labour Party at Bedford Borough Council and advising on policy in the House of Lords – has given him the ability to interpret the political messages that come from the government and know when it is not worth expending energy on them. "It means I don't get unnecessarily worked up about things," he says.

This came in useful when Brandon Lewis, then the minister for local government, fire and rescue and high streets, published a press release last June that caused upset in the sector by referring to the techniques employed by street fundraisers as "deeply unpleasant" and "a menace".

"Some of our members didn't take particularly kindly to his comments," recalls Hills-Jones. "But if you strip away some of what he said, one of his points was that charity fundraising was incredibly important. I reinforced this message with our members and said they shouldn't focus on the negative because it wasn't meant for them; it was for a different constituency."

Hills-Jones believes the government has been extremely supportive of charities overall, and he encourages his members to keep their cool when politicians sound off about the sector. Nevertheless, the PFRA is planning to tackle negative comments about street and doorstep fundraising by getting involved with the Understanding Charities Group, an alliance of sector organisations that was formed last year to help charities respond better to negative media coverage.

Hills-Jones says the PFRA is broadly supportive of the group, which is led by CharityComms, the membership network for charity communications professionals, not least because he believes it can help to dispel confusion about the role of paid fundraisers. "Having directors of fundraising going out and talking more generally about what they do is a good thing," he says.

Asked if the PFRA would speak out on behalf of its members if they were criticised in the media, Hills-Jones says this would depend on whether the issue was the behaviour of a single organisation. "If it was an isolated case, we might not, because there might not be broader implications for the sector," he says. "If there was the sense that it was part of a wider problem, we would."

On one issue with implications for many doorstep fundraisers, that of "no cold-calling" stickers, the PFRA is keen to remain neutral. Last year, the Fundraising Standards Board rejected complaints about two organisations – Home Fundraising and Battersea Dogs & Cats Home – after fundraisers from each organisation called at properties that displayed signs asking unsolicited visitors to stay away.

But the FRSB also urged the Institute of Fundraising to review its Code of Fundraising Practice, which does not currently stipulate what fundraisers should do when they encounter such stickers. Hills-Jones, who was part of the working group set up by the IoF to look into the issue, says the PFRA does not have a position. "We provide advice and explain to members the consequences of ignoring no cold-calling stickers," he says.

He believes the stickers are a grey area, but expects clarification once the IoF has decided whether to accept the working group's recommendations at its board meeting in June. Meanwhile, it is clear, he says, that fundraisers should not knock at properties that display signs stating that charities in particular are not welcome.

Hills-Jones says the PFRA has been collaborating increasingly with the FRSB and the IoF since last July, when the professional services firm PwC published its review of how self-regulation was working.

As recommended in the report, he says, the three organisations have been developing a joint strategy that involves the PFRA sharing more information with the FRSB about organisations with poor face-to-face fundraising practices and a programme in which members that break PFRA rules will be offered specially tailored training by the IoF.

Hills-Jones says that he does not get the sense that there is much demand for fundraising to be regulated by the state and that he believes the government is content with the PFRA, the IoF and the FRSB simply working together more closely.

Before the PFRA was founded in 2000, he says, face-to-face fundraising was a "free-for-all". Its role now, he argues, is to sustain face-to-face for as long as it can. He accepts that the practice might not last forever.

"Every product has a shelf life," he says. "What we've managed to achieve is to extend the life of street fundraising by another 10 years, and we aim to replicate that for door-to-door fundraising."

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