When is a questionnaire not a questionnaire? The answer is when it is 'frugging' - a request for donations disguised as a piece of consumer research. The word is an amalgamation of 'sugging', or 'survey mugging', direct marketing jargon that refers to commercial selling under the guise of research - together with a 'fr' for fundraising.
Frugging is a direct mail technique that has divided fundraisers for decades. For some, frugging is fundraising's bete noire: an outdated technique that misleads recipients, particularly the most credulous, and therefore risks bringing all charity fundraising into disrepute. For others, the technique is a legitimate and profitable way to approach donors and potential givers. Now the Institute of Fundraising is attempting to clamp down on frugging questionnaires that have no genuine research rationale with new rules in its code of practice for direct mail, published in May.
Frugging involves sending existing and potential supporters a pack that looks at first glance like a questionnaire about the charity and its cause. The final question, however, is always a request for money, and the technique has been dogged by rumours that some charities have in the past quietly binned the questionnaire results and kept the cash.
A spokeswoman for the Direct Marketing Association says sugging has virtually died out in the corporate world. Frugging, meanwhile, though not exactly thriving, is very much in use. Figures don't exist for how many charities use the technique or how much money it raises, but the British Heart Foundation, the Stroke Association and Action for Blind People are among charities that continue to send fundraising questionnaires.
"Frugging is frowned on, and it's out of vogue, but it's still a feature of fundraising direct marketing," says Megan Pacey, the institute's director of policy and campaigns. "There are genuine cases where our member charities are using it as a way to understand their donors and supporters - so rather than introduce an outright ban, we've told them they must be clear about what it is they are trying to find out."
Section 3.4 of the new code says charities should make the purpose of the research clear to recipients and should not mislead people. It says charities should collate enough responses to ensure any subsequent analysis is statistically robust and viable. Supporters who ask to inspect the questionnaire's results should be able to do so, the code says.
Pacey hopes the code will sweep away any lingering sharp practice. "There's a strong lobby that doesn't like frugging, but it's now up to the Fundraising Standards Board to interpret the code and apply it to any vague campaigns that are complained about," she says.
Action for Blind People is among those charities that favour the technique. "It's an involvement device if used properly," says Andrew Taylor, director of fundraising. "We use them because they are still an effective form of recruitment." Taylor says the charity finds the responses useful, and analyses them to "aid understanding of what motivates donors to give".
However, the new code of practice will catch out many charities, warns Stephen Pidgeon, chair of the working party that developed the code and chairman of direct marketing agency Tangible Response.
"If questionnaires are not being used for research - which most are not - then it must be clear what they are being used for," he says. "I wonder if we'll ever get a questionnaire letter that says 'we don't want your views and certainly won't capture them, but we do want you to give us a donation'. I think not. Charities will have to start data-capturing statistically significant numbers of returned questionnaires."
But given that respondents are a self-selecting sample, is it possible to come up with a viable analysis of results from fundraising questionnaires?
Pidgeon says even self-selecting surveys can offer findings that can be useful for marketing purposes. For example, offering respondents a selection of statements and asking them to choose the one that most closely represents the reason they support the charity might provide an interesting insight.
Not everyone believes the new guidelines will stamp out bad practice, however. Simon Burne, a fundraising consultant and former chair of the Institute of Fundraising, says the institute could have gone further and banned its members from using questionnaires when they have no intention of analysing the results. "It's not enough to say copies of analyses are available," he says. "Analyses should be posted on a website or supporters told how to get hold of them.
"I suspect the cost of analysing questionnaires would detract from the attraction of the recruitment process and that the institute is trying to make it so difficult that it's no longer worth doing."
Burne predicts that the economic downturn, rather than new code, will be the catalyst for frugging's demise. "Everyone faces the same challenge: how to continue engaging supporters," he says. "The plummeting economy could stop comfortable fundraising practices like this."
Stroke Association's National Stroke Survey
In May, the Stroke Association ran an insert campaign to recruit new supporters that took the form of a questionnaire.
Different versions of the questionnaire have been sent to existing and potential supporters since 2004, raising nearly £965,000 for the association.
Becky Downer, the association's supporter relations manager, says: "We have analysed the results of the survey at different points." The results have been made available internally and have been published in Making Waves, the charity's supporter newsletter.
This year's pack included a survey headed National Survey - Reaching out to everyone affected by stroke, and with a subheading: "Please complete this vital survey to help us reach out to everyone affected by stroke throughout the country." Elsewhere, the questionnaire is described as "our survey into the nation's experiences of stroke".
A request for a one-off gift of £20, £100 or another amount appears at the end of a series of questions.
The questionnaire asked 11 questions under two headings: "Your experience of stroke" and "Your knowledge of stroke". Recipients were asked about their understanding of stroke and whether they had heard of the association before.
Those who had had a stroke were asked four questions, including how old they were when they had their first stroke, whether they were admitted to a specialist stroke unit and whether they experienced problems such as delays getting to hospital, or with diagnosis.