Face-to-face fundraising, particularly street fundraising or 'chugging', as it has become known, has never been the most popular of fundraising methods with the public. But how effective a method is it proving to be?
The most recent figures from the Public Fundraising Regulatory Association show a slight drop in both the number of sign-ups and the average gift per month for both street and door-to-door fundraising.
Between April 2008 and March 2009, 520,662 donors were recruited by door-to-door fundraising and 222,856 by street fundraising. For the year 2009/10, the figures fell to 484,220 and 177,649 respectively.
This was the lowest number of street sign-ups since 2001, and the fall could be due partly to the fact that one of the largest face-to-face fundraising agencies, Dialogue Direct, went into administration in October 2009.
Attrition rates for street fundraising tend to be high. Louise Parkes, head of fundraising at Shelter, says that about half of supporters recruited in the street are still donating after a year.
High attrition rates can be the main reason why charities drop out of street fundraising. Andrew Cook, director of communications and fundraising at WaterAid, says the charity trialled it for five years from 2001 but has now stopped. "We found with street that the attrition rate was high, and long-term supporter loyalty is critical to our fundraising," he says.
But many charities find that the method generates satisfactory returns. According to a spokeswoman for Save the Children, for every £1 invested in face-to-face, the charity raises another £2.
Many charities that use face-to-face continue to sing its praises and say it has weathered the recession better than other forms. Mark Carter-Nesbitt, managing director of street fundraising firm UrbanLeaf, says: "Bad publicity and the recession are 100 per cent not a problem for street fundraising. It's a one-on-one conversation and having that conversation inspires people to give by helping them overcome any objections they might have."
Carter-Nesbitt says that staff training and analysis of regions where fundraising should take place has been crucial to surviving a difficult economic climate. "The pace of economic change in certain areas has really increased since 2008," he says. "We monitor the levels of unemployment and performance down to postcode level in different areas, and we update our strategy frequently."
Lisa Williams, donor recruitment manager for the NSPCC, says it has seen a huge rise in sign-ups from face-to-face fundraising in recent years. "For street last year, we recruited 34,000 new donors," she says. "If you compare this with the 7,000 new donors we recruited in 2006/07, you can see how well it is doing."
Williams says there has also been significant growth in recruitment from door-to-door. The NSPCC recruited 7,000 new donors through this method last year, compared with 2,000 in 2006/07.
She says the charity has increased its investment in face-to-face over the past few years, and this is because it is one of the most cost-effective ways for it to fundraise.
The housing charity Shelter has also seen continued success in both street - which it has been doing for 10 years - and door-to-door, which it has been using for 14 years. Parkes says that last year it recruited 20,000 new supporters through face-to-face.
However, it's generally acknowledged that the recession has affected sign-ups. Dominic Will, the managing director of Home Fundraising, a door-to-door agency that works with charities such as Oxfam and Cancer Research UK, says it is now about 10 per cent harder to sign someone up than before the downturn.
Text message 'micro donations'
Some charities have taken an innovative approach to maintaining sign-ups. Christian Aid, for example, has been trialling the use of text message 'micro donations' since July. The charity's representatives seek donations of £1 by text message: the details of the number to text are given to the donor by a street fundraiser and the donation comes straight off their phone bill.
Ruth Ruderham, Christian Aid's head of fundraising, says: "They are happy to give you the small gift and then you have their contact details, so you can follow up with them afterwards."
The most recent figures from the Fundraising Standards Board show that the number of complaints about street fundraising in 2009 represented only 0.2 per cent of the number of sign-ups.
Mick Aldridge, chief executive of the PFRA, says he would like to see the FRSB categorising these complaints so that it is known exactly how many are serious allegations and how many are "people complaining that they just don't like it".
This is something that Alistair McLean, the FRSB's chief executive, says it is currently looking into doing. It is also considering how to report complaints from the much larger number of people who are approached but decline to sign up.
More charities are expected to start employing their own staff rather than agencies for face-to-face fundraising. Everychild is one charity that already runs all its street fundraising in-house.
A spokeswoman for EveryChild says the main benefit of this approach is that fundraisers get extensive training in the work the charity does. As the charity's work involves complicated issues, they are then able to more clearly communicate this work to potential donors, she says.
An in-house team?
Alice Montague, account manager for the British Red Cross, says it is also considering setting up an in-house team for the charity's face-to-face fundraising, but that this will be in addition to the work it does with external agencies.
The wildlife charity the Aspinall Foundation went further by setting up its own agency, AAP Fundraising, last year. All of the fees charged by this face-to-face agency go directly to the charity. AAP now fundraises for seven charities, including Save the Children and Shelter.
Despite this apparent huge draw for increasing public donations, AAP's director Gareth Moore says its fundraisers never point out to the public that their fees are used in a different way from those of other agencies.
"We wouldn't want to differentiate ourselves against other agencies like that," he says. "It's about having a moral high ground. We wouldn't want to imply that other agencies are in any way wrong to charge fees; they are providing a service."
So despite a recent fall in the number of sign-ups and the very real concerns about attrition, there is little sign that the overall appetite for face-to-face is declining among charities, many of which are increasing investment in it and attempting to adapt the technique to changed and straitened economic circumstances.
On the look-out for miscreant chuggers
It's a wet and windy Monday in London and I'm joining Nick Henry, head of standards at the Public Fundraising Regulatory Association, for a spot of mystery shopping. Nick's mission is to note evidence of street fundraisers breaking PFRA guidance and to report it to the agencies that employ them.
We spend the afternoon in zone 1. I'm impressed by how easily Nick can spot chuggers - he picks them out from an astonishing distance. In Leicester Square, Nick scoffs at one who appears to be trying to sign up a Big Issue vendor.
We mill around, probably looking less than inconspicuous. Nick grabs a notepad from his bag and scribbles fervently, scowling. The issue, he says, is some "very minor breaches of the three-step rule" - three steps towards someone, three walking backwards, three alongside them, and that's your lot.
We move on towards Piccadilly Circus. Now we're peering round the side of a phone box, making sure a fundraiser's not straying outside his allotted pitch. Then we're into Regent Street.
"Bam!" Nick suddenly yells as he points at some fundraisers who are not meant to be there. But there's nothing he can do, because he's worried he has misread his morning report and failed to notice that they were meant to be here.
We leave them to it and wander down Oxford Street. Nick tells me under his breath that we have just entered the "Bond Street Triangle". I begin to see this once familiar part of London in a whole new light.
The pace picks up. I'm struggling to keep up, but my instincts tell me we might be approaching some real drama. Then we come to an abrupt halt as Nick realises that the man we are chasing, suspected of operating outside his assigned area, is not a chugger, but a shopper wearing a red top like some nearby fundraisers.
As the afternoon closes, I'm left with the feeling that the public anger towards this type of fundraising is out of proportion to the level of wrong-doing. There are surely many worse things for us to get irate about.