The door-to-door dilemma

Door-to-door fundraising is loathed by much of the public, but still brings in the money. Rebecca Cooney reports on what the future holds for the fundraising technique

< This article has been corrected; see final paragraph

In surveys about fundraising techniques, door-to-door is always among those most likely to irritate the public. In fact, Third Sector's report Donating Trends in the UK 2017 says a fundraiser knocking on the door is the third most likely reason for people to think ill of charities, after spending money on chief executive pay and being pressurised to donate. The technique is particularly unpopular with the over-55s, the study says.

Nevertheless, door-to-door remains an effective way of raising money. According to the Institute of Fundraising, almost three million people have pledged to support a charity in the past five years after a doorstep conversation, and an estimated £360m has been raised in this way.

But the past year has not been favourable for door-to-door fundraising. Since April 2016, Oxfam, the Royal British Legion and the volunteering organisation VSO (see note below) have all announced plans to stop raising money through direct debit sign-ups at the door. Last year, the RNLI said it would end door-to-door collections, which were done by volunteers, saying it did not believe the practice was compatible with its new opt-in-only policy. Oxfam and VSO, on the other hand, said they did not believe they were getting high enough returns to justify using this method.

Dominic Will, joint managing director of Home Fundraising, the largest door-to-door fundraising agency, is sanguine about the withdrawal of these major players from this area of fundraising. It's perfectly reasonable, he says, for organisations to want to take a step back and review their strategies on a regular basis, and points out that it's rare to hear about a charity that is maintaining it door-to-door programme or increasing investment in it.

But he says: "It's likely that the overall numbers for door-to-door fundraising will be reduced over the next couple of years, but I think you could say that about most fundraising channels. The landscape has become more challenging over recent years."

Those who dislike this method of fundraising really do dislike it. A quick search on Twitter or Google will uncover a barrage of complaints from people who view a fundraising visit as an intrusion. After a negative experience, Third Sector columnist Peter Stanford recently called on charities to drop the method, calling it "outdated".

'Not just door-to-door'

Home Fundraising says that in the 2016/17 financial year it had one complaint for every 2,740 doorstep conversations. "We have to accept that some people do not like the approach full stop, in the same way some people don't want to be approached by telephone or direct mail," Will says. "This isn't exclusive to door-to-door.

"People have different views about different approaches. We just need to try to communicate the significance of what door-to-door can achieve."

Sharona Appanah, director of Focus Fundraising, a smaller agency, says the negative media attention on fundraising in 2015 and 2016 has made people less receptive to doorstep conversations.

This has prompted an improvement in standards, she says, because "cowboys who cut corners" are less likely to survive in the current climate. But that change has to occur across the industry, she says.

"If we carry on going as we are, where there are still lots of rules not being followed to the letter, there won't be a future for door-to-door," she says. "But there's still scope for change. If we say 'we are going to improve', I think it has a long future ahead."

In the 2016/17 financial year, Home estimates, it had almost three million conversations with people on their doorsteps, recruiting about 180,000 donors. Its annual review says it raised more than £60m for charity in that year, an estimate based on "current modelling of medium and longer-term returns", it says.

Impressive though they are, these medium and longer-term returns are a long way from guaranteed. In its 2016/17 annual report, VSO said it had chosen to withdraw from door-to-door fundraising activity "due to insufficient long-term returns and high supporter attrition". Oxfam said its programme had not been delivering the performance it thought was appropriate.

"The fundamental problem is the cost of acquisition being far in excess of the amount of the initial donation," says Stephen Lee, professor of voluntary sector management at Cass Business School.

"It's not that you don't get people. You do. But if you're using a third-party agency it works economically only if those people can be retained and transferred into a committed programme of giving that lasts for a significant period of time."

And this, he says, does not seem to be happening. "If we're talking about this quite modern conceptualisation of door-to-door, where it is operated by third-party commercial agents, I think it is going to become increasingly difficult to see that being sustained in an effective way," Lee says.

Home says it charges a per-donor fee, with invoices raised against results actually achieved during the campaign. It declines to say how the fee is calculated, but says it offers guarantees on built-in attrition and gift levels to ensure its clients are protected. It does not take a monthly cut of donations.

Unlike some other agencies, Home directly employs its fundraisers on salaries and does not use a commission-only approach. 

But Lee offers a more radical solution: turning back the clock by 20 years to a time when, he says, a small number of large charities ran large programmes cost-effectively through volunteers, by means both of cash collections and direct debit sign-ups.

"They used in-house or sometimes external telephone agencies to recruit and mobilise existing volunteers to go and do these collections on a high volume, both in terms of numbers of people and in geographical spread," he says. "That proved very effective in terms of raising money."

He argues that the cost-effectiveness of door-to-door "nosedived" when paid staff were introduced, because small donations from large numbers of people cannot sustain the costs of professional fundraisers.

Lee argues that his idea might also combat some of the antipathy towards door-to-door. A local volunteer asking for donations for a charity they support themselves is a very different proposition from a paid fundraiser who is required to read out a solicitation statement by law. He believes charities would be able to use volunteers at a volume that would be effective.

On the streets of Cambridge (see "On the doorstep with Home"), a door-to-door fundraiser for Home, who has asked not to be identified, questions whether volunteers would be able to replace full-time door-to-door fundraisers. "I love my job and what it does for the organisations I'm representing," she says. "Many of them are causes that I personally believe in."

But as well as the training and skills she brings to bear in the conversations she has in every five-hour shift, the amount of ground covered means it's a surprisingly physical job. "I'd love to do this voluntarily, but if I had another full-time job I can't see that I'd be able to fit this in as well," she says. "I don't think I'd have the time or the energy to be able to commit to it.

And passion for a cause or even a range of causes alone can't sustain fundraisers, Will says.

There's still scope for change. If we say 'we are going to improve', I think it has a long future ahead

Sharona Appanah, director, Focus Fundraising

"It's quite a lonely existence," he says. "Even though we work in teams, you do have a lot of rejection.

"It's not always negative, but the fact is that most people will turn you down, even if you have a really positive conversation, so you need to feel like there is a really solid infrastructure in an organisation supporting you that goes beyond the cause you're representing."

Fran cartoon

He adds that it has to be done well in order to achieve the results. "You can't just recruit a load of people, send them out and hope for the best," he says. "You have to give them the training, the support and the ongoing opportunity to develop."

For Will, focusing solely on the amount of money people sign up to give also risks missing the point of door-to-door.

"We are able to go out and represent organisations and talk about issues that are not going to be front of mind for people," he says. "It might lead to a gift further down the line, but it might get people thinking about the issue as well."

The RNLI's decision to drop the practice was, it said, a logical extension of its strategy to go opt-in-only - and preparation, in part, for the arrival of the General Data Protection Regulation, stricter data protection rules that are due to come into force on 25 May next year.

A boost from the GDPR?

But the GDPR's higher standards for consent to contact people might prove to be a boost for door-to-door. Knocking on someone's door does not require the use of data, yet it gives charities an opportunity to have one-on-one conversations about their work with potential donors (though any data collected during conversations will have to be GDPR-compliant).

But he believes door-to-door will remain a method charities use as part of a mixed strategy, and that's the way it should be. There's a tendency in the sector, he says, to take a binary approach, rushing towards digital marketing and chucking out everything that's been done in the past 10 to 15 years."There's a unique importance about talking to people face-to-face, and that could grow given the era we're moving into with the GDPR," Will says.

"There's huge potential for working a lot more collaboratively, rather than pulling all your eggs from one basket and putting them all in another," he says. "I don't find that very imaginative.

"I don't see why it wouldn't be as important in another 15 years."



This year's report Donating Trends in the UK 2017, produced by Harris Interactive in partnership with Third Sector, says at least half of respondents disapproved of fundraisers knocking on their door.

The survey found that 50 per cent of people disapproved of door-to-door fundraising to some extent, and 24 per cent approved. And nearly a third (32 per cent) of respondents completely disapproved of the method, whereas only 7 per cent completely approved.

But this is a much better picture than in 2016, when only 10 per cent approved even to some extent and 76 per cent disapproved.

Martin Bradley, senior associate director of Harris Interactive, says this is probably the result of "a combination of charities changing after the negative media attention we saw in 2016, and the fact that it is not in the news so much".

Men were found to be more likely to approve of door-to-door, at 26 per cent, while 22 per cent of women approved. Women were also slightly more likely to disapprove: 51 per cent, compared with 50 per cent of men.

Those over 55 were the most likely to disapprove, with 60 per cent saying they did not like door-to-door, and least likely to approve, at only 18 per cent. People aged 16 to 24 were the only group more likely to approve than disapprove, with 34 per cent supporting the practice and 29 per cent expressing disapproval.

"This is interesting for charities because this is generally the hardest group to engage with," Bradley says.

The higher someone's socio-economic status, the less likely they were to approve and the more likely they were to disapprove. Of people who already gave to charity, 27 per cent approved, compared with 10 per cent of those who never gave.

When asked to add comments to the survey, respondents raised issues about cold calling, high-pressure approaches and the danger of elderly people feeling harassed. One said: "I have heard there are independent companies that raise funds for charities by knocking on doors and cold calling. They obviously rake off some of the funds raised before they pay the charities. I thoroughly disapprove of this as it adds to the distrust the public have in charities."

Fundraisers knocking at the door was the third most commonly named issue that respondents said would reduce trust in a charity, but this is down from second in 2016.

"There's still some way to go, but it is heading in the right direction," says Bradley.

Donating Trends in the UK 2017 can be purchased here

< The original version of this article said that Home Fundraising’s door-to-door staff do not receive salaries but are paid commission instead. They, in fact, do receive salaries. Home says that while this model can be more costly to operate, it believes that it delivers more accountability and transparency for charities. We apologise for this error. Unfortunately, the latest edition of Third Sector magazine went to print before this error could be corrected.  

< *VSO has asked us to point out that it restarted its door-to-door programme in October 2020 with the agency Real Fundraising.

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