FACE-TO-FACE FUNDRAISING: Word on the street

Alex Blythe

Face-to-face fundraising is unpopular with members of the public but it's also a valuable source of revenue for charities, particularly from younger givers . Now the Home Office is proposing regulations, writes Alex Blythe.

In recent months, the practice of signing people up to direct debits on the street or door-to-door has faced mounting criticism in the national press. Research released by Charity Monitor seems to lend support to the critics. It conducted 1,965 interviews between April and August 2003, revealing that only 6 per cent of British adults choose to sign up to a direct debit via a paid street or doorstep fundraiser as the first or even second preference out of ten methods of charitable giving methods.

More than 30 per cent of adults surveyed said paid recruiters were their least favourite method of giving. When Medecins sans Frontieres stopped its face-to-face fundraising in May 2003, many saw the move as the beginning of the end for that type of fundraising.

Face-to-face revolution

However, since it hit the UK in the late 1990s, face-to-face has revolutionised fundraising and there are few indications that the sector is willing to give up on it. While MSF may have found it to be less profitable compared to DRTV, the vast majority of charities are extremely enthusiastic about the phenomenal contribution made by face-to-face to their fundraising work. "Street fundraising has been the most successful way of bringing new regular supporters to the charity," says a Breakthrough Breast Cancer spokesperson. The National Deaf Children's Society now also raises 60 per cent of its income through face-to-face fundraising.

The Public Fundraising Regulatory Association claims that face-to-face generated 690,000 new supporters in 2002. It points out that this makes face-to-face one of the most cost-effective methods of fundraising currently available. The technique also tends to attract the under-35s, a group that has a low incidence of regular giving. It provides gainful employment for many young people, and it offers a chance for the public to learn more about particular charities. It is also an accessible fundraising medium for small charities. And, most crucially, face-to-face has played a key role in the recent reversal of a 20-year decline in charitable giving.

But despite all these positives, there are many in the sector who recognise that if the practice continues in its current form then it may well alienate the public and do irreparable damage to many charities. It was the desire for more sustainable face-to-face fundraising that led to the creation of the PFRA, a member-based association representing around 150 organisations that has as its explicit aim the self-regulation of face-to-face fundraising.

It has had some critical successes. Notably, it has bound all of its members to the Institute of Fundraising Code of Practice, ensuring that guidelines and standards are enforced. It has also set up the London Site Management Scheme, which defines sites, limits team sizes, puts a limit on the number of days a site can be used, and ensures that fundraisers are not accosting people by cash machines or other queues.

Most fundraising agencies and charities have also taken individual steps to ensure a more sustainable future for face-to-face fundraising. As Louise Cook, head of development at agency Fruitful Fundraising points out: "The skills and knowledge of individual fundraisers is vital to success. This led us to gain Investors in People status, and we do a lot of work not only training our teams on what to say and how to say it, but also developing them so successful individuals can build a real career."

Mick Aldridge, managing director at agency Push Consultancy, describes a similar approach: "We only work in teams of three or four and pioneered the concept of dedicated teams. Our focus is always on quality rather than quantity and we frequently turn down business so that we can focus on existing campaigns."

Despite these laudable collective and individual actions, there is a widely held view that more must be done. So, the industry has broadly welcomed proposals from the Home Office for more effective regulation of face-to-face fundraising. In its September 2002 document, Private Action, Public Benefit, the Cabinet Office Strategy Unit proposed many important changes to the legislation around fundraising. Its proposals regarding licensing have the potential to revolutionise face-to-face fundraising.

Lack of legislation

At the moment, different collection methods such as street and door-to-door are covered by different schemes and, since no one used direct debits when the relevant legislation was framed in 1916, face-to-face is not really covered at all. Furthermore, there are wide differences in the approaches taken by different local authorities towards the licensing of street collections. Some are too accommodating and so become overwhelmed, others refuse to grant any licences, and many apply individual preferences - choosing an animal charity over a refugee charity, for example.

In London the situation is further complicated by the fact that charities must apply to the police for licences. The recently released Home Office proposals that resulted from Private Action, Public Benefit recommended setting up a lead authority system, which would provide a statement of acceptability to be presented to other authorities.

In general, the industry is supportive of these proposals. The genuine desire for better regulation that led to the creation of the PFRA is serving the industry well during the current consultation phase on these proposals.

However, all are keen to reduce the potential for over-regulation and to avoid unnecessary administrative and financial burdens. In particular, the proposal to remove national exemption orders has proved unpopular with those charities that have had them and so currently do not have to apply for licences.

Others want to make sure that an accurate definition of public and private places is provided and that local authorities adopt a sensible approach to high-street capacity. However, most share the confidence of Lindsay Boswell, chief executive of the Institute of Fundraising, that the Government has a genuine interest in the matter.

"Part three of the 1992 Charities Act was never enacted because it was unworkable," says Boswell. "The Government seems determined to ensure that the same mistake is not repeated and I'm totally confident that there's the opportunity for us to evolve the Government's thinking on the subject."

If Boswell, the PFRA, and others do successfully evolve those proposals to produce something workable and fair, then it will do a great deal to ensure the long-term viability of face-to-face fundraising. Those regulatory changes seem likely to go hand-in-hand with other equally significant changes to face-to-face fundraising.

Many in the industry expect face-to-face fundraising to mature rapidly during 2004. Cathy Anderson, head of marketing at Greenpeace, believes we will soon witness greater creativity in terms of locations. "We always have a major presence at Glastonbury, and it's always been really successful because there are clear connections between the two brands," she says.

"I think charities will start thinking more creatively about where they do their fundraising, and this will help to shift it away from the high street and towards greater public acceptance. For instance, people would probably not have a problem with the British Heart Foundation having a face-to-face fundraising presence at sporting events."

Sharper targeting through location is an obvious improvement to make.

Others argue for more thought on the approach taken on the ground. They point out that a line of fundraisers on the street can generate a negative reaction with the public. Many people don't mind being approached by one fundraiser, but get annoyed when they have to start dodging a long line of them.

Technological advances

Some charities have been experimenting recently with removing the ubiquitous clipboard. Under this new system, fundraisers on the street strike up conversations with passers-by and direct anyone who is interested in setting up direct debits to one of the few in the team with a clipboard and the relevant paperwork. Others look forward to a future where PDAs entirely remove the need for clipboards. Already many charities are embracing new technologies with fundraisers collecting mobile phone numbers and then sending a brief text message to thank a new donor.

There are many ways in which face-to-face fundraising can develop in the future. Boswell, however, believes that the most important way is in communication: "The fact is that many people, particularly older people, don't like being stopped on the street. This is why charities need to find some way of explaining to them that face-to-face is an absolutely essential way of getting regular donations from the under-35s and so ensuring the future of the charity. Where this has been clearly and sympathetically explained to donors, they have been very supportive."

One thing seems certain: face-to-face fundraising has a future. Much will change but it has become far too important for charities to ignore it. As concluding evidence of this, James Kliffen, head of fundraising at MSF, is keen to point out that far from wanting to signal the beginning of the end of face-to-face fundraising, his charity strongly endorses it.

"We just stopped doing it because at the time we weren't getting the results," he says. "This is probably because in some parts of the UK it's become too intense and we were getting some anecdotal feedback that it wasn't very popular with the public. However, this is not to say that we won't do it again. If things get better regulated in the next few years then there's every chance that we'll start doing it again. Overall I think it's a fantastic way to raise funds."

PFRA AND THE FUTURE OF FACE-TO-FACE FUNDRAISING

The PFRA is a rare thing: a collective body set up by competing organisations for the purpose of ensuring a sustainable future for a revenue stream that is vital to the future of each and every member.

The fact that it has to date been largely successful makes it almost unique. However, its chair, Timothy Hornsby, prefers to focus more on the work still to be done than on past successes. The consultation with the Home Office on its proposals for improving regulation of fundraising of public collections runs from 9 September to 2 December and the PFRA is acting as the co-ordinating body for the sector in its consultation work.

He is broadly supportive of government efforts to update laws that were in part devised in 1916, but believes it is important to avoid ending up with an unworkable system that will cost too much and over-burden charities with administration.

"I'm concerned that the system of lead councils will be over-elaborate," he says. "While it is important to license, to ensure that you have the maximum number of opportunities without over-crowding or causing nuisance to punters, I would have thought that where you have a bona fide charity, signed up to the PFRA, there would be little need for even more complicated checks by local authorities. In the same way, do we really need a massive new body to oversee self-regulation?

I would prefer us to build on existing structures such as the PFRA and the Institute, rather than create a bureaucratic monster that will need to be paid for by a tax on donations, something that nobody wants."

Hornsby is optimistic about the outcome of the consultation. "The Home Office is genuinely listening to us on this and there is every possibility that these regulations will breathe new life into face-to-face fundraising," he says. "At the moment, it is possible to do it in about half of the local authorities. So, with a well-balanced regulatory framework, there is absolutely no reason why charities couldn't double the amount that they raise from face-to-face fundraising."

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