“To Give Or Not To Give?”: Britain’s charity collecting army

What do you do when confronted in the street by a ‘chugger’ ( a ‘charity mugger’ clutching  a clip board, shaking a tin or box and insisting on a contribution to their ‘good cause’)? Avoid them and walk past with a frozen smile? Stop, chat and then politely decline their invitation? Reluctantly agree to make a donation ?  Fundraising in the UK is big business.  Statistics issued by the National Council For Voluntary Organisations & The Charity Aid Foundation indicate that in 2005/6 , 28 million adults in Britain donated around £8 billion to charities. Last year, Oxfam made a profit or over £21 million and the Salvation Army’s margin increased by 64%. The Charity Shops Survey 2008 reported that the combined profits of the country’s estimated 7,500 charity shops rose by 7.4% to £106.7million. In 2009, however, 52% of them (according to the Charity Commission) are being adversely affected by the economic crisis: 14% are reducing costs, 11% looking for new sources of income and 6% are having to use their savings to survive.

An inevitable consequence is that the ‘chuggers’ are putting passer-bys under even more pressure to part with their money. Most of them are employed  by professional companies who, under the provisions of the Charities Act, must now obtain a council  permit for each area in which they wish to operate and a certificate from the Charities Commission.  Many UK local authorities have not, however, been prepared to wait for these regulations to be implemented and have already taken action against  “the plethora of collectors who resort to aggressive tactics” in their shopping centres. A walk along Oxford Street has in the opinion of Westminster Council, “been turned into an obstacle course”. They have therefore negotiated an agreement with the Public Fundraising Regulatory Association (PFRA) to reduce ‘chugging levels’ in the West End. The PFRA states that its 135 members (among then Amnesty International, the British Red Cross & The League Against Cruel Sports) raise a minimum of £55 million  a year through direct debits either in the High Street (230,000 donor pledges in 2007/8) or on the doorstep (280,000). Furthermore, that they all abide by The  Institute Of  Fundraising Code Of Practice.

The ‘Intelligent Giving’ watchdog organisation sent investigators out into the streets to test this last claim by interviewing 50 ‘chuggers’.  Initially, only four were prepared to admit that they were being paid for doing the job (about £8.50p per hour) even though the law requires them to reveal their ‘method and amount of remuneration’. Although none were working on a commission basis, some had performance-related arrangements. The more people they signed up the more they earnt. Both the fundraiser’s ID (Identity Details) and the name of the charity are supposed to be clearly visible. In two cases they weren’t. They also have to wear ‘branded clothing’ ( for instance, a jacket with their organisation’s logo and colours).It soon became apparent that some of them didn’t know much about the charity they were representing. The  WRVS ( Women’s Royal Voluntary Service) chugger wasn’t sure what the ‘W’ stood for.   ‘Intelligent Giving’ concede that face-to-face fundraisers have a tough job : ” They have to stand out in the cold trying to speak to uninterested people” – and that the demands on them to produce results mean they often won’t accept ‘no’ for an answer: “Fifteen of them wouldn’t leave our researchers alone when asked, one (from Asthma UK) shouted ‘You’re beautiful!’ and another two (from Great Ormond Street Hospital) were deliberately obstructive.

‘Intelligent Giving’ concluded that most of the chuggers were only interested in raising the maximum amount of cash in the minimum amount of time, misled the public and were motivated more by greed than altruism. Their recommendation was “Never give to street fundraisers”.  The PFRA  responded by rejecting the research as ‘flawed’ and the allegations ‘ridiculous’. Meanwhile, the Chairman of London’s Marylebone Association  has welcomed the prospects of a crackdown: “It’s a great idea. When you run the gauntlet of chuggers, your conscience has already taken a beating by the time you even get to the supermarket”.

Filed under: Society | Posted on March 30th, 2009 by Colin D Gordon

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