Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Chuggers in the Media

This was originally posted on the Total Fundraising website on 24th February 2012.
I started my professional fundraising career as a chugger a good few years ago in Melbourne, Australia when I was on a working holiday visa and needed the money. I hadn’t been aware that you could work for a charity and get paid and to me it seemed like the best of both worlds.
It was a tough job but I enjoyed it. Everyone I worked with was quirky, friendly and cared passionately about the various causes we worked with. Our Manager was amazing and now runs his own charity. Our Trainer was one of the most inspirational people I’ve ever met – I pretty much fell in love with her and that pretty much went nowhere.
It was possibly the best job I ever had and one of the most difficult and lowest paid jobs I ever had. But it had a big impact on me – I remember many of the people I signed up nearly 10 years ago. The first person I ever signed up was a middle-aged women who had never heard of the charity I represented but wanted to help. I noticed she had pieces of hair around her ears and I guessed (correctly) that she had just gotten a haircut, which I complimented her on. Some might call this an ‘underhanded technique’, but I genuinely meant it and it was a good icebreaker as nobody wants a conversation to start, “Hi, there are over 10 million refugees in the world.”
I worked for, and now own, a fundraising agency because I care for each of the individual causes and do not want to work for one specific charity. I am passionate about international development, unnecessary blindness, children’s rights, dogs and cats, and more – as I know many people are. When I started my career as a chugger nearly 10 years ago I fundraised for refugees, children with disabilities and the conservation of Australian wildlife. I was trained on each of these and desperately wanted to make a difference in all of these.
I was a paid member of staff, and at times I was criticised for being paid. Even now we as fundraisers and other charity workers are criticised for being paid.
But by being paid it allows me to donate 50-60 hours of my week running a business that generates tens of millions of Euro a year to Irish charities. If I was not paid I could not and would not do this and it would be unreasonable for anyone to expect me to do so. It is unreasonable to expect all charity staff to be volunteers. And it’s patronising to charities to say they should not be paying for services or paying competitive salaries to attract decent staff.
A few years ago I volunteered for about a year for the telephone helpline of a children’s charity. I was surprised to see that quite often volunteers did not turn up and sometimes did not even notify their manager that they weren’t going to.
I believe in volunteering, but I also believe in paying full-time and part-time staff. I am happy to pay some of my staff bonuses or ‘performance related pay’. In any business I believe people that excel at their job should be paid more.
One point that is often made is that there is no regulation. It especially scares me when politicians say this. This is incorrect. There is regulation – there is self-regulation and a code of conduct that has been in place for years and there is the 2007 Charities Bill whose implementation has been delayed due to the current economic problems, but we still abide by it. We want this Charities Bill implemented and I’d like to see more politicians pushing this as that is a constructive way to improve the sector. We want better regulation. It’s absolutely necessary, but it will also benefit us all because it will give the public more confidence in charities and in their donations.
It scares me when politicians say there is no regulation on chugging because it shows that they have little knowledge of what their government are doing. It scares me when politicians choose to make ill-informed press releases or go on radio chat shows before even attempting to engage anyone in a dialogue.
Despite regulation and the codes of conduct in place, problems will still occur. Our staff have literally thousands of conversations a day and, like any business, sometimes one of our staff steps out of line or behaves inappropriately. While our management monitors the staff closely and we ‘mystery shop’ and we get feedback from our welcome calls, like any business we still rely on feedback from the public.
What always surprises me is how few complaints we get and how few complaints the charities get. When I tell people what I do they occasionally tell me their own horror story of how a chugger grabbed a phone out of their hands, chased them up the street or told them to “F*** Off”. I always ask what happened when they reported it to the charity or the agency and almost always they tell me they didn’t report it. They tell their friends, but they don’t tell anyone who can do anything about it.
Imagine you were sitting in a restaurant and the waiter told you to “F*** Off”. You would tell the management, of course. But for some reason this doesn’t apply to chuggers. I don’t know why.
We always deal with credible complaints we receive. Where the fundraiser admits misconduct it generally ends in termination of their employment. Where they deny it we respect the rights of our staff and allow them to continue (with permission from the charity) while keeping a close eye on them. If we receive multiple complaints about one individual that can’t be proved we assume there is some truth there and it generally results in a disciplinary or termination of employment. Almost without exception, every complaint we have received has been resolved to the satisfaction of the complainant, the charity and ourselves.
Hugging is not allowed. If someone on the street (or any place of business) tried to hug me I would get their name, phone their employer and complain.
Blocking paths is not allowed, but sometimes happens accidentally – if you stand still in Dublin city centre eventually you get in someone’s way. If you take a photo of someone on crutches walking near a fundraiser it might appear as someone blocking the path of someone using crutches (although I don’t really see the relevance of the crutches?).
Shaking hands is allowed. Whenever I meet someone new I shake their hand. If they didn’t want to shake my hand then presumably they wouldn’t shake it.
There are restrictions on where we work, and we work closely with other organisations and charities to ensure we don’t work on the same streets and that areas are properly rested. We have been doing this for years – some areas of the UK are only just starting these rest periods and this story has gained a bit of attention. But Ireland has been doing it for years.
I think the Twitter account @Chuggerwatch is a great idea, albeit a little unnecessary. Where we work is not a secret – we try to tweet it ourselves each morning. Where each charity is booked to work each day should be information that is easily accessible to the public. If we ever forget to tweet where we are then please just ask me.
As an agency we also get criticised for ‘profiting’ from charity. We generated tens of millions of Euro for charity last year and we made about €5000 profit (to be finalised).
But by being a profitable company we can also build new and innovative ways for charities to raise money. For example, we used some of our income to develop and launch the website Sponsor.ie, which allows members of the public to fundraise in a cool way and allows small charities to accept donations on-line and get a webpage with no set-up costs. We also used some of our income to develop GiftCall, an alternative landline telephone service where a percentage of your call costs goes to charity at no extra cost to you or the charity.
Currently Sponsor.ie and GiftCall are losing money. It will be years until they’re profitable, and when they are we’ll probably put that money back in to developing the next way for charities to generate funds.
I love fundraising for charities. And I love each and every charity we work with. I’m currently working against the government’s proposed cuts in charity donation tax relief (which has received almost zero media coverage). I voluntarily give seminars on recruiting and retaining regular donors. I will continue to personally fundraise for Leukaemia related charities. I work hard to improve charitable fundraising and improve the sector. I believe anyone I have dealt with on a professional level will account for that. The only time I’m aware of falling out with a charity was when I insisted they take part in the voluntary site regulations and they refused.
You need to be aware that many, many people are ‘profiting’ from charity. When a charity buys their stationery, pays their rent, buys their tea and coffee and makes a phone call someone is profiting. But that someone is also paying wages and providing jobs. And their profit? They spend that money on all sorts of things, pumping money back in to the Irish economy.
Charity fundraising is the fairest tax there is.
You choose if you donate or not. You choose where your money goes.
The Irish government has already shown that they cannot or will not implement a fair tax system. And within the taxes you and I pay we are funding projects and payments that we do not wish to fund.
That’s why I love charity. I choose how much I give and I choose who I give to and the projects I care about in Ireland and abroad get funded. If I can’t afford it or I don’t want to I just say no. Charity fundraising is the fairest tax there is.
I don’t like being asked for money. I don’t like TV ads. I don’t like junk mail. I hate how every day I get about 3 delivery menus in my letterbox. Except when I want a menu – when I want to order take-away then I want a delivery menu in my letterbox and it’s extremely convenient.
And that’s why chugging works – because it’s extremely convenient. The majority of people you speak to have been ‘meaning to do something like this for ages’. Or they have a reason that they didn’t do it in the past, eg. Because the charity’s CEO allegedly earns too much, because of some alleged scandal in the past, because they don’t want to give out their bank details, because they’ve never heard of the charity, etc. The beauty of chugging, and its advantage over advertising and mailings, is that it’s a two-way conversation. We can talk through your concerns, we can answer your questions, we can help you make a decision. If you decide you don’t want to do it then you walk away.
Chugging, or Street Fundraising, is one of the most cost-effective forms of fundraising that exists. To say you will not donate to a charity because they use Street Fundraising is a shame because essentially you are saying you will not donate to a charity that is using your donation wisely.
I understand the criticisms of chugging. I think they can be addressed through simply ignoring chuggers or saying ‘No’ or complaining to the appropriate bodies. Chugging will continue to be criticised but what I never hear is a practical alternative.
I wonder sometimes will chugging one day be banned. Or, more likely, will there one day no longer be a need for it. Instead our children will look back and wonder why there weren't more people out on streets campaigning, looking for support, and asking for money towards ending poverty and delivering basic human rights. History will absolve them.
If chugging was banned tomorrow you would see the number of new, regular donors to charities diminish by much more than half. Charities’ incomes would decrease accordingly. The services they can provide would decrease. The number of staff they can employ would decrease. Nobody would step in to fill that void.
But I have the solution…
If everyone went and set up Standing Orders donating monthly directly to their favourite charities then these amazing organisations will have all the funding they need. They will no longer need to spend money on fundraising, on advertising or on agencies. Chuggers won’t be needed. You will never be asked for money again. Total Fundraising won’t be needed. We’ll terminate the employment of our nearly 100 staff. I will go home to my fiancĂ© and my baby and I will start looking for another job. And I’ll be happy, because I live in a country where every charity is fully funded.


  1. I was a "chugger" in a previous life, and never met any other fellow chugger who was there for any other reason than to make as much money as possible in the fastest most effective way - through direct on street fundraising. It's human nature that people are skeptic of being approached by strangers for money. Comprehensive transparency of this fundraising approach, as outlined here by the company Total Fundraising is the way to go for sure. This straight forward non waffle speak is an example of what the cv sector with the coming regulations needs to be working towards. Hopefully over time this directness and continued effort to get the reality not innuendo out will serve to inform and reassure the public of the legitimacy of on street fundraising. So, while these blogs are hassle, personally I think they're a welcome addition and fair play to TF for leading the way for the sector.