Viewpoint: Why 'prospect gathering' should be regulated too

A very fruitful new fundraising tactic for charities is at risk of being damaged before it has a chance to prove itself.

New charity representatives are becoming fixtures on our streets. They wear charity-branded clothing and carry clipboards, but they are not directly asking for financial support. They are there to approach members of the public, explain the work of their causes and ask people whether they would be prepared to volunteer, lend their weight to campaigns or make gifts. Contact details are taken, not bank details. Approaches for further support come later by telephone, email or post.

This technique is a welcome innovation. Using the benefits of person-to-person contact and providing more diverse ways for potential supporters to get involved in charities' work, it might also be considered a softer approach than more traditional fundraising tactics.

What the charities pursuing this new approach are doing is 'prospect gathering' - developing a pool of prospects that can then be targeted with requests for support in the knowledge that communications are going to people who have already shown interest.

Is it still fundraising? In my view, yes. Volunteers and campaigners can sometimes have even greater value for charities than committed donors.

But prospect gatherers are sharing a crowded space. In addition to face-to-face fundraisers, they may also be working in the same streets as cash collectors, utility salespeople, newspaper distributors and market researchers. There's a danger that people will feel overwhelmed by the number of individuals vying for their attention.

There is also a risk that the visual similarity between face-to-face fundraisers and prospectors will lead to confusion for both members of the public and the local authorities with which the sector works. Street fundraisers are already regulated to make sure their presence on the high street is balanced with other people's needs. The impact of prospect gathering teams should be given similar consideration.

The Public Fundraising Regulatory Association is determined that conventional face-to-face fundraising must be safeguarded, but also that innovation can thrive. Research indicates that the public is concerned about standards in all forms of fundraising, but the sector can regulate itself only if there is an established code of practice.

Without appropriate regulation, public confidence in what should be a very effective tool for charities may be damaged before that tool has a chance to prove itself.

In the meantime, Oxfam and Shelter are among those charities already prospecting that have agreed the medium needs to be regulated. But the questions of who takes responsibility for that regulation and how it is funded are still matters for discussion.

- Mick Aldridge chief executive of the Public Fundraising 

5 more things ...

Shelter says it receives only one complaint for every 15,000 people it signs up through prospecting. Matt Goody, head of direct marketing at the housing charity, believes this is because prospects can select how they are contacted.

Shelter and Oxfam are among those charities exploring prospecting: face-to-face fundraisers approach people in the street to ask them to lend their support to campaigns. Those that agree are contacted later with requests for donations.

Both charities have used prospecting for several years on private sites such as music festival venues. They are now rolling out the technique across the country.

The number of people signing up for regular giving through face-to-face fundraising appears to be falling. The Public Fundraising Regulatory Association has estimated that a 12 per cent drop in the number of sign-ups is likely, from 586,000 in 2005/06 to 514,000 in 2006/07.

Charities could lose £25m as a result, because the average face-to-face donor gives £350 over five years.

- Helen Barrett

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