Private sites, such as shopping centres and supermarkets, are becoming the go-to places for charity fundraising teams lured by the prospect of better sign-up rates and lower attrition. But competition for good locations is getting stronger and site owners often impose restrictions on what the teams can do.
Iris Rose, head of community marketing at the conservation charity RSPB, believes bad publicity attracted by street fundraising has prompted charities to diversify their fundraising operations. "Private sites provide a lot of opportunities and good attrition, and it is a less intrusive form of fundraising than street or door-to-door," she says. "But it is getting more competitive because a lot of charities are now fundraising on private sites. We are struggling to get into supermarkets in particular because of the number of charities wanting to do so."
The homelessness charity Shelter has found that sign-up rates are on average "noticeably higher" on private sites than for door-to-door or on the street; World Vision, RSPB and Battersea Dogs and Cats Home all agree that there is less attrition. Richard Lawrence, face-to-face fundraising advisor at World Vision says: "Crucially, the people who sign up in shopping centres are far more likely to sign up for longer, which means that more money gets through to children in the communities where we work. It means the cost per person of signing up is proportionally less."
Maddy Eastwood, direct marketing manager at Battersea, says: "Regular givers for the Home recruited in private sites have proven to be more loyal than those recruited through other types of face-to-face fundraising; they stay on board as a supporter for longer, and fewer cancel their gifts in the first three months."
Shopping centres, supermarkets and retail parks have proved a "great source of new regular givers" for the animal charity over the past year, she says, and it has recently expanded its focus to events such as the Ideal Home and Grand Designs exhibitions and London pet shows.
Although the Canal and River Trust currently concentrates the majority of its face-to-face fundraising on the towpaths that it cares for, Andrew Sarson, the charity's senior individual giving officer, says that other private sites are now on its radar because they will bring new audiences to the charity and provide the option of indoor locations during bad weather.
Charities will consider any private site where there is a large footfall and they can get the owner's permission. Some site owners charge charities to use them, but others do it for free, often as a way of demonstrating support for the local community. Costs vary hugely. "World Vision always negotiates charity rates and weighs up any initial cost against the huge return in future income we get in sign-ups to child sponsorships," says Lawrence. "We would not invest in anything where we did not get a minimum of £5 back for every pound spent."
From basic rules to new regulation
Fundraising on private sites is currently regulated by the site owners, although charities are subject to the Institute of Fundraising's Code of Fundraising Practice and the Charity Commission's fundraising rules. However, this situation might soon change. Peter Hills-Jones, head of policy and communications at the Public Fundraising Regulatory Association, which is the self-regulatory body for street and doorstep fundraising, says that the issue of regulation of private sites has been raised internally by members. The PFRA might look into working with owners to monitor and enforce fundraising best practice, but no final decision has been made.
Charity fundraising teams adapt their practices to fit the regulations of each private site. Rather than approaching people with clipboards, charities are often required by the owner to set up a stand. Tracy Griffin, director of fundraising at Shelter, says that these requirements can result in logistical difficulties, such as fundraisers needing to be at the stand at all times to adhere to health and safety requirements or erecting and taking down the stand when the centre is closed. "When a centre has late-night shopping or extended opening hours, split shifts must be organised or the fundraisers must work for longer," she says.
Regardless of individual site rules, there are a few general principles that usually apply. "Fundraising on private sites generally requires a toned-down approach from the fundraisers," says Griffin. "They are normally restricted to a relatively small area and will rightly be expected to adopt a manner appropriate to the centre."
Alexander Nicoll, corporate responsibility director at Intu Properties - which owns 18 shopping centres in the UK, including the Trafford Centre in Manchester and Lakeside in Thurrock, Essex - says the company prefers charities to hold "awareness-raising events".
"We do not encourage mass tin-shaking and chugging of customers," he says. "We feel that people do not want to be approached directly for cash and we encourage charities to think about how they can approach people with an entertaining or educational slant, and include the financial ask in that." Intu Properties does not charge charities, but limits numbers of them to two or three at a time in larger shopping centres and has rosters for smaller centres.
Why private sites are better for recruiting donors is open to debate. Linda Blair, a clinical psychologist who has a private practice at CircleBath Hospital in Bath, believes it could be to do with the individual's frame of mind. "People who are on the street are on a timetable and need to go from A to B, so they avoid taking the time to listen because they are on a predetermined agenda," she says. "When people are in shopping centres or garden centres, they are more likely to have reached their destination and are less likely to be on a timetable so are more open to suggestion and consideration.
"Also, when people are on familiar territory they are more relaxed. People choose to go to shopping centres, but they do not choose for someone to knock on their door, which feels intrusive. It can make people feel nervous, too, even if the fundraiser has identification. It is better to be in a shared space where people are equals, rather than moving towards someone's own space where a protective mammal instinct kicks in."
Nicoll believes people are more responsive to charities in the warm, well-lit environment of a shopping centre than on the street. Having a professional-looking stand also encourages people to take the initiative. Rose of the RSPB says having a stand prompts people to approach the charity as well as vice versa: "If people choose to approach us then we're halfway to signing them up."
Eastwood agrees: "We're not entirely sure why private site-recruited donors are so loyal - possibly it's because they are slightly more proactive in their decision to give. People passing by see the fundraisers at a stand with Battersea's logo and images to draw their attention, and they make the decision whether to engage in conversation.
"There is a theory that people are more 'self-selecting' than recruits from other types of face-to-face methods. They also tend to be a slightly older demographic than in other forms of face-to-face fundraising and we have found that older donors are more committed and less likely to cancel."
Case study: Richard Lawrence, World Vision's face-to-face fundraising adviser
"We've found that the more we show people how the money they donate makes a tangible difference, the more connected they feel as a supporter. Rather than fundraisers just telling people about our work, we have set up two African huts at a shopping centre in Glasgow in a 'before and after' Step into Africa exhibit to demonstrate the difference that child sponsorship can make to families.
"We'll be there for 21 days and are then touring the UK over the next few months, including plans for London's South Bank and St David's Shopping Centre in Cardiff. We look for large sites where people relax and have their lunch breaks. Curiosity then draws them to the huts. We need places where we can comfortably engage and talk with people.
"The huts take about five minutes to look around, which gives people more time to give a considered choice to sponsoring a child. Sometimes they go home, research us on the internet and then come back later. They wouldn't have the opportunity to do this on a public site because we would have moved on by then.
"Our sponsorships are £22.80 a month, so it is quite a high ask compared with some other charities, but we hope to average a minimum of 10 to 15 sponsorships a day."