News Analysis: Can the C word really be reclaimed?

Helen Barrett

The word 'chugger' is frowned upon by many, but some fundraisers want to redefine it.

The spokeswoman from the Oxford English Dictionary seems bemused.

"I haven't heard of it," she says. "There are things that chug, or a person who consumes a large drink without pausing, but I haven't heard of a charity mugger."

Not everyone understands the word, but 'chugger' - a slang term for a face-to-face fundraiser that amalgamates 'charity' and 'mugger' and is usually a term of abuse - was added to the OED in 2005.

Its casual use is guaranteed to raise the sector's hackles. The Public Fundraising Regulatory Association emphasises that its estimates show face-to-face fundraisers generate about £106,000 worth of pledged donations for every working day of the year. Surely, the argument goes, street fundraisers deserve a better moniker than one that labels them as petty thieves.

Now face-to-face is fighting back - with a twist. There are moves to reclaim the word 'chugging' in a bid to fend off the usual snipes about getting a proper job. This month, the PFRA's executive board will decide whether to set a policy for its members on the open use of 'chugger'.

It may even opt to encourage members to embrace the phrase by giving it the new definition of 'charity hugger'. The move comes after face-to-face agency Gift handed out merchandise bearing the slogans 'Chuggers Save Lives' and 'I Love Chuggers' at the Institute of Fundraising's 2006 National Convention in a bold attempt to challenge the negativity directed at the industry.

Affectionate term

"Our fundraisers in the street have been the driving force behind trying to reclaim it as an affectionate term," says Milly Ahmed, a director of Gift. "We want to recast it with the positive, charity-focused overtones it deserves. We want people to say 'chugger' with respect."

Nick Henry, regional manager for direct dialogue at Concern Worldwide, says: "It's a great idea. I'm a chugger. I've chugged since 1998, a long time before anyone used the word." Henry says 'chugging' is regularly used in Concern's offices and that staff are comfortable with it. "We often say 'I'm off out chugging for an hour'," he says.

Henry believes that reclaiming the word will help face-to-face fundraisers head off criticism. "The word is not going to go away," he says. "It will carry on being thrown at us. If we get upset, that only gives power to people who use it as an insult."

But Lewis Honney, another face-to-face professional, disagrees. A campaign manager with DialogueDirect and former face-to-face fundraiser, his blog, Streetlife, brings first-hand experience to the debate.

"The term instantly criminalises someone," he writes in his blog. "I've never heard of a fundraiser physically assaulting a member of the public or threatening violence in order to relieve them of their belongings. Let's banish such a negative reference to a fantastic but often difficult role."

Banning the use of 'chugging' and 'chuggers' from the vocabulary of fundraising professionals gets the stamp of approval from Lindsay Boswell, chief executive of the Institute of Fundraising. "I don't use it, and neither do my staff," he says.

Anecdotes about pushy sales techniques aside, how did 'chugging' become such common shorthand for a legal, regulated fundraising method that is proven to work? Boswell believes poor communication on the part of charities is to blame.

"The thing that depresses me about face-to-face is the way we've failed as a sector to communicate why it's an excellent form of fundraising," he says. "Charities should tell their donors and supporters: 'Look - like it or not, you are aged 45 to 50, so we are trying to attract younger donors by responding to the way young people tell us they like to be approached.' Not enough charities are explaining face-to-face in this way."

Mixed results

It's not yet clear what the PFRA might do to reclaim 'chugger', but it may not be worth the effort. Historically, attempts to reclaim derogatory words - such as the gay rights lobby redefining 'queer' - have achieved mixed results.

According to John Simpson, chief editor of the OED, there has been no really successful campaign to reclaim such a word. He argues that publicity surrounding such a campaign often serves only to highlight and reinforce its negative sense.

For its part, the PFRA is keen to emphasise that the chugging debate is not keeping its members awake at night. "It might be that the board decides it has more important things to discuss, such as the Charities Bill," says Nik Earl, communications manager. "In the grand scheme of things, this is a very small issue."

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