Daniel Fluskey: People give to people, not emojis

The head of policy and research at the Institute of Fundraising argues the case for door-to-door fundraising

Daniel Fluskey
Daniel Fluskey

Think of a memorable conversation you’ve had. Maybe you found out something new or were left thinking about an issue in a different way. Picture it taking place. Now what’s in your mind? Are you remembering looking at your phone screen, or talking to another person for real, face-to-face?

We live in a world of contactless card payments, crowdfunding and viral digital campaigns. Millions of pounds can be generated overnight and people from different sides of the world can be connected in an instant. The new and the shiny are always exciting, and the potential in emerging technology is real.

But, as the old saying goes, "the more things change, the more they stay the same". That’s as true in fundraising as it is in any walk of life. Make a connection, inspire a supporter, tell a story, make an ask. Technology might change, but the heart of what makes excellent fundraising doesn’t.

That’s why one of the more traditional and established forms of fundraising, door-to-door, continues to work. In 2016/17, nearly half a million people signed up to direct debits on the doorstep. It remains one of the most effective and efficient ways of recruiting new supporters who remain committed to giving regularly for years.

The British Heart Foundation has fundraised on the doorstep for almost 10 years. Nick Georgiadis, director of individual giving and product marketing at the BHF, says: "As a research charity, predictable income streams are vital for us, enabling us to commit to funding three to five-year research programmes. Door-to-door brings in a predictable number of donors, at a predictable cost, over a long-term basis and that’s hugely important to us."

But – even though regular giving is critical – the decision to fundraise on the doorstep is not that simple. As a sector, we have to recognise that by knocking on someone’s door we might be interrupting someone’s routine, that they might be busy or just not in the mood to talk.

Fundraisers can’t know who will be behind each door, but they can make sure they are always polite and courteous, follow all the rules that are in place and do their best to make sure that the person answering the door has a good and positive experience whether they donate or not. High standards are not optional. They are fundamental to the success of door-to-door fundraising.

And the beauty of door-to-door is that it reaches parts that other fundraising techniques simply never do.

Last autumn, Diabetes UK reintroduced its door-to-door fundraising programme and now recruits more regular-giving donors this way than through any other fundraising technique. Katie Simmons, assistant director, engagement and partnerships, says: "It’s the dialogue that is so important, giving us the opportunity to communicate about diabetes, our work and our priorities."

Alex Hyde-Smith, fundraising director at Marie Curie, also recognises the value in the human interaction that door-to-door brings: "On the doorstep, we can have wide-reaching conversations about the charity’s work, directed by the needs and interests of the people we speak with. We can regionalise and tailor our approach around them."

There are few ways of reaching people that offer the same depth of engagement with the public. And it doesn’t just have to be about giving – it can actually become a way for a charity to promote its services and work towards its objectives. Georgiadis of the BHF says: "Door-to-door can really bring the charity to life and help share what we do. Even if people don’t want to give, most are interested in our work. We are increasingly using it as a way of drawing people’s awareness to the breadth of our work and to highlight the importance of specific knowledge or skills such as CPR."

Fundraising on the doorstep is not going to be the answer for every charity or cause. There are certainly other forms of fundraising that seem easier or cheaper, or have fewer risks – but that doesn’t necessarily make them better. Each one has something that makes it distinct and offers something special. For example, with door-to-door, the opportunity to talk to a donor and find out what kind of future communications they might want is really valuable. It takes the "small print" of data protection into a real conversation. Asking about preferences and what they want to hear about from the charity is even more important as all charities work towards making sure they’re compliant with the General Data Protection Regulation.

There are few ways of reaching the public that offer the same depth of engagement with potential donors. And although there is more powerful technology in the phone in your pocket than was in the rocket that took Neil Armstrong to the moon, it’s always worth remembering that people will always give to people, not to an emoji. (Well, not yet.)

Daniel Fluskey is head of policy and research at the Institute of Fundraising

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