Monday, August 26, 2013

I Wish I'd Thought Of That: Direct Dialogue Fundraising

This is an expanded version of what I said at Fundraising Ireland's 'I Wish I'd Thought Of That' event in August 2013.

I want to talk about my favourite form of fundraising - direct dialogue, face-to-face, door-to-door, street, 'chugging'. You’ve no doubt already made your mind up about it - you use it and love it, you think it’s a necessary evil, or you hate it and you’re never going to use it.

But, I want to talk about how it changed fundraising, how it changed my life, and why I think it’s important to you whether you use it or not.

Door-to-door sales was invented shortly after the invention of door but it was around the early 70s that a charity first made a measured effort to recruit regular givers - it was the Red Cross using an agency in Germany, made up of mainly Austrian students.

And through that the concept spread back to Austria. One of the big charities to do it in Austria was Greenpeace, and one day in the hot summer of 1995 the employees of an agency named Dialog Direct were whining that there was nobody home. So they went and stood outside a public swimming pool and started talking to strangers walking by, signing them up for DD. It worked - they did it at a second swimming pool - and then shifted almost all of their door on to street.

In ‘96 the French were well into their nuclear testing - identifying some of the most beautiful places in the world and then blowing those places up - and it was thanks to this that Greenpeace really found their groove with direct recruitment.

They recruited 55,000 new direct debit donors that year through direct dialogue in Austria (a country about double our population). Some of the fundraisers involved presented it at the IFC conference - and people didn’t believe it worked. It wouldn’t work. It’s not possible. But they were wrong.

The idea was exported to Italy. Czech republic. Anywhere that could process standing orders or direct debits. Australia started using it. A telephone agency in the UK was essentially forced by Greenpeace to move out onto the street. But they knew it would be controversial, so they got the likes of Amnesty and WWF on board to help control the public opinion.

2002 or 2003-ish was about the time that the first in-house teams started to appear and about the time it arrived in Ireland.

Which brings me to 2004 - the year I started on the street for UNHCR, MSF and Forgotten Children (an Australian charity whose celebrity patron is Toadfish from Neighbours). And that changed my life.

It changed it immediately because I met amazing people, and was given amazing things on the street, and randomers would invite me to parties. I completely fell in love with the girl who trained me in and that was a disaster for about a year, and then it was really good for about 6 hours, and then it was a disaster again.
And then long-term it changed my view on ‘charity’ and realistically how we are going to change the world (Hint: it involves money). It got me working in the charity sector which is where I’ve stayed - I currently own a fundraising agency that employs nearly 100 'dialoguers'. And in a roundabout way I met my girlfriend and had a kid through it.

But why would you care about any of that?

Well, the point is that face-to-face fundraising works. And I don’t mean using an agency. I’m not necessarily talking about these large campaigns or even the fundraisers that stand on the street all day. I’m talking about you, as a fundraiser.

I’ve worked with a lot of people who have gone on to work in other agencies and charities and I believe if you’ve ever worked in sales or street or door-to-door that you take this skill along with you to ask for money. A friend of mine who worked on door-to-door (as well as other jobs) made the transition to office-based fundraiser. He ended up working for a well known international charity, who had been in Ireland for nearly 10 years and they had 1 direct debit donor. He went in and started engaging with volunteers, supporters, at events, even staff. He started 'face-to-face fundraising' with everyone he met. Within about a year they had 50 DD donors.

I love technology and digital - twitter and e-mail and social media and text giving and all this fancy stuff - and I hate talking to people. But in terms of fundraising very often this technology is just making it easier for us to NOT really ask for money. We’re using the latest technology to access hundreds of thousands of people and make it really easy to ignore us. Genuinely, are you going to raise more money today by e-mailing 100,000 people or by talking to ten?

Whatever changes in the future humans will continue to give to humans. The more you sound like a human, the more you look like a human the more you will raise. You can't fully understand any form of fundraising until you've had someone say "Yes" to your face and someone say "No" to your face.

And that's why I wish I thought of Direct Dialogue fundraising.


  1. Liked this Simon and of course totally agree. On the history though your dates are off for Ireland. Street fundraising came to Ireland in 1999 with PFP recruiting for Sight Savers. 1st door campaigns (apart from in house which St John of God were doing since at least the early 90s)were in 2000 with Fundraising Initiatives/Appco and Concern. Concern recruited 60,000 door to door donors in 2001 alone.

    1. Thanks Tobin. Do you know I knew someone was going to pull me up for getting some of the facts wrong. I had 3 people in mind and you were one of them! :-)
      Always happy to be corrected. Hope you're well.