Fake buckets and bungee jumps: charities have the wrong approach

Not long before Christmas, a Red Cross fundraiser knocked on my door. I took one look at him and said: “Sorry, I don’t set up direct debits with strangers on the doorstep.” He replied, “No, I’m actually collecting sponsorship for a bungee jump at the weekend.”

I said I would be happy to sponsor a bungee jump and went for my wallet – only to find him laughing. He’d been joking about the bungee jump and wouldn’t take any cash. So I closed the door and put my wallet away.

The same day, I heard that Oxfam fundraisers, in Lancashire if not elsewhere, have adopted the tactic of holding buckets, presumably so that people will mistake them for bucket collectors.

What do the imaginary bungee jump and the fake collection bucket have in common? They’re both an acknowledgement on the part of charity fundraisers that the public are much more receptive to one-off donation requests than to direct debit requests. The Red Cross fundraiser was laughing at my willingness to hand over cash; the Oxfam fundraisers in Pendle were trying to use people’s willingness to hand over cash to manipulate them into giving by direct debit.

In other words, charities know perfectly well how people prefer to give. Here’s a radical idea: instead of using that knowledge to mock or trick the public, how about making it part of your fundraising strategy?

I know all the arguments for direct-debit fundraising, and for the use of “chuggers”. "Direct debits are a more reliable source of income than one-off donations, allowing charities to plan financially." "Using chuggers is actually a very cost-effective fundraising method, meaning that the charity can spend less money on fundraising and more on its core work." "It’s only a small monthly amount and chuggers are very highly trained and they have a code of conduct but unfortunately we can’t allow them to accept any cash..." Yada yada yada.

The truth is: potential givers are being driven away by charities’ tactics. When a charity demands that you set up a direct debit in order to give, it’s a similar situation to being forced into website registration by a business you’re trying to buy from. You want a one-off transaction, they insist on setting up a relationship. Your choice is between agreeing to that ongoing relationship or just walking away. Just as the business won’t let you just buy that DVD without handing over lots of information, the charity won’t let you just give them the money. When did charities become so mean, so demanding, towards people who just want to give them cash?

I have worked in the charity sector myself, both in a voluntary and a paid capacity, and I’ve heard the logic many times: persuading someone who already gives to give more is easier than persuading someone who doesn’t give to start giving. Existing givers are a valuable source of money in the future. So when someone wants to give money to your charity, it makes sense to take contact details and keep a relationship going...right? Well, in my capacity as someone who actually gives to charity, I can see giant holes in the logic.

Firstly: it’s really annoying and sometimes quite upsetting when you naively sign up to give as much as you can afford, then get phone calls asking for more. I can very clearly remember WWF ringing my house trying to sign me up for a direct debit when I was about ten years old. I’d saved up all my pocket money and sent them a donation; I didn’t imagine for one second that they would take that as a cue to try to get even more money out of me.

Secondly: if you’re already disillusioned and you suspect that any donation will be taken as an invitation to ask you for more, it will put you off giving any money in the first place. Just try to find a charity website that gives you the option of making a donation without giving any contact details. Hard, isn’t it? I’d say that roughly once a month I’m moved to give money to a charity but then decide against it because I can’t bear the thought of being on some telefundraising list for the rest of my life.

This attitude that donors are resources to be mined is messing up the potential of great fundraising techniques. For example, the idea of text-message giving is a brilliant one. Most people have a mobile phone and most people who own mobile phones keep them to hand. That makes text-message giving an easy, quick way of making a one-off donation. At least, that’s what givers think. Anecdotal evidence suggests that to charities, it’s a nice way of getting people’s mobile phone numbers so you can ask them to set up a direct debit. A friend of mine reports that one charity rang her within minutes of the text-message donation; a Telegraph article reporting an undercover investigation into chugging suggests that this is common:

[The donor’s] number is... stored and used by [a fundraising call-centre] whose staff contact the donor to convince them to commit to a direct debit...

We actually do this live calling, so you know when you say it [the phone call] could be up to two weeks — that is kind of the of rule of thumb but we actually do live calling so if someone sends a text, five minutes later they might receive a phone call.

You think you’re giving £5; you’re actually giving a charity (or, rather, the third-party organisations it pays to do its dirty work) the power to hassle you through your mobile phone.

How did this happen? How did we get to a point where charity fundraising departments, whose job it is to raise money, act with such disrespect towards people who try to give them money? And when we talk about the decline in charity giving, why don’t we talk about this?


Well said. I don't think charities/fundraising organisations realise how off-putting it is to harassed like this. Yes, they might convince some people to sign up for a direct debit, but it will put a lot more people off. If I donate in a one-off, and then get hassled to give by direct debit, I'm more likely to stop giving to that charity full stop, including no further one-off donations. 

I hope people in the charity/fundraising sector read this article. It's about time charities were more generous to their donors.

C Evans (not verified)

Tue, 2014-01-14 09:18

Please may suggest you support small local charities?

I'm a Trustee of a local organisation that supports families with pre-school children. We obviously pay the professionals who work with the children but everything else is done by volunteers (HR, fund raising, etc). We certainly don't have money to pay chuggers, telesales people or similar!

Any one-off donation gratefully received!

celestialweasel (not verified)

Wed, 2014-01-15 14:17

In my experience charities / campaigning organisations fall overwhelmingly into two categories

i) ones that chase you relentlessly ever ever, usually starting immediately after you have first given them some money (the worst ever was Save The Children who clearly spent every penny I gave them on trying to get more from me, I would also single out a couple of hospices for this -one of which clearly passed my details onto the one in Oxford since that was the geographically closest so I got hassled by two of them rather than just one).

ii) those that don't acknowledge any donation at all

Although, obviously, I am opposed to the circumstances that require food banks and some people are clearly dubious of them in general (I have not looked into this enough to work out if it is tinfoilhattery or not), however I must say that the Oxford Foodbank is a very rare exception to this principle in that they have acknowledged donations but otherwise left me alone.

I would add to your super-short list of exceptions the Campaign Against Climate Change, who asked for £1 a month, said "thank you" and never again asked me for more. After a completely hassle-free year, I doubled it to the princely sum of £2/month.

I also give to Women for Women International, who email me once a year to say "here's what we spent your money on, thanks" and otherwise leave me alone. But this may be because I made an fuss about it at the very outset; setting up a direct debit with them used to involve emails back and forth, and in those emails I said very explicitly that I didn't want any more requests for money. I also begged them to make it possible to set up a direct debit through the website without a lot of to-ing and fro-ing, and I am pleased to say they've done this.