Peter Stanford: Collecting on the doorstep is high-pressure selling

Charities should think twice about door-to-door fundraising, our columnist says

Peter Stanford
Peter Stanford

In the past few weeks - usually just as I've settled myself down on the sofa after a long day - the front door bell has been ringing like billy-o. A procession of door-to-door fundraisers for various charities has for some reason hit upon our street.

It's down to chance, presumably, but there have been so many that I have begun to suspect that this anonymous road in north-west London has somehow popped up in a piece of data as the most generous row of terraced houses in the country.

If it has won such an accolade, it is no thanks to me. Long ago, I made a rule never to give in this way, never even to engage in any sort of discussion that might lead up to giving, and always to make clear as a member of trustee boards that I heartily disapprove of such practices and want no part, however distant, in inflicting them on others.

I take this position precisely because of the sort of hard-sell techniques employed by some of my recent callers. Not wanting to be rude (the clock is ticking and I am approaching the age when I have seen friends turn into grumpy old men), I politely ask them to leave some material, which I will examine at my leisure and then decide whether to make a donation.

"I could leave something with you for 30 minutes," one replied. That feels like more of a sprint than leisure. "I'm not allowed to give you anything," replied a second. Best of all, a third said: "I've nothing to give you."

The prize for the most unsettling doorstep experience, though, goes to a woman who was collecting signatures for an Iranian human rights charity on a petition about imprisoned and persecuted Iranian teachers.

She planned to send it to our local MP, she told me. It had the right name at the top of the sheet of paper, and she appeared to have been pretty successful so far at filling it. Soon I saw why.

I went through the usual rigmarole about not giving money or joining causes on the basis of cold calling. She looked me straight in the eye as if I was mad and said: "My son was a teacher in Iran and he was killed."

I may paraphrase slightly, but it was that direct. Parent to parent, such words strike home. How could I shut the door on her?

How could I say no, even if her account of what the petition hoped to achieve was muddled and her faith in Glenda Jackson MP, whose brief ministerial career was almost as long ago as her Oscar-winning triumphs, was misplaced if she thought she could exert any sort of pressure on either the Foreign Office or President Ahmadinejad.

Feeling put on the spot and profoundly uncomfortable, I signed. "And now," she continued, without even a word of thanks, "can we talk about a donation?"

Extorting money by using the death of your son - if indeed that part of the story was true, though strangely enough there was something about the way she said it that made me believe her - is a curious thing to do. Curiously repugnant, I'm afraid: I refused and shut the door. If I could have taken my signature back, I would have done so.

An extreme example? Of course. But utterly separate from the other, more mainstream callers? I'm afraid not. It is just a ramped-up version of what they are also doing: high-pressure, guilt-inducing selling.

Now there are plenty of people, trustees among them, who will point out that you need money to fund your charitable activities, and will ask why they should shilly-shally round the question of getting people to give.

But I'm afraid I'm in the camp - diffident and English as it may be - that cringes at a hard sell and prefers gentle encouragement based on proper exposure to the facts.

And the doorstep is not the place for gentle encouragement. It is somewhere that charities' hard-won good reputations can so easily be sacrificed by over-zealous representatives, where important causes are distorted to make a quick sale, and where our natural constituency of supporters is quickly alienated in the process.

Trustee boards everywhere should stop those doorbells ringing.

Peter Stanford is a writer and broadcaster. He chaired Aspire for two decades and is director of the Longford Trust

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