Cynical tactics or a necessary evil?

Charities have been condemned for shock tactics in advertising and using ‘chuggers’ to recruit donors. But as these approaches have a proven track-record, organisations face a real dilemma. Or do they? By John Stones

Desperate times call for desperate measures. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the charity sector, where organistions are adopting an increasingly strident and intrusive tone in their marketing and fundraising campaigns. But as the charities’ clamour to be heard becomes greater, so does the danger of a backlash.

Children’s charity Barnardo’s has caused an outcry with its current advertising campaign, showing babies with cockroaches and syringes in their mouths. Public reaction to the campaign prompted the charity to defend its actions in a letter to the national press (MW last week). And the growing reliance on face-to-face marketing by charities, stopping people on the street and encouraging them to sign up to direct debits, has also caused a storm of protest, with the national press wading into the debate on “chuggers”, as these fundraisers have become known.

LBC 97.3FM flagship presenter Nick Ferrari says there was a phenomenal response when he raised the issue of chugging on his breakfast show last week. “People cross the road to get away from them. They find it annoying and prefer to give to smaller charities,” he says. “I have not been asking them to cancel their direct debits, though some people may choose to do so. The charities have not heard the last of it and I will keep it going.”

Last week’s Queen’s Speech unveiled the draft Charities Bill, which will not only redefine what a charity is, but is also likely to set out new laws governing face-to-face fundraising. Although the Home Office is in consultation on the subject, it is thought that getting people to sign up to direct debits on the street is likely to be brought into line with cash collections – meaning that charities will have to apply for a local authority licence to carry out either activity at a particular time and place.

Paradoxically, the new licensing procedure could result in more chugging as it will prevent local authorities from barring the practice in their town. Manchester, Leeds and Birmingham have so far used antiquated anti-begging legislation to prevent charities carrying out face-to-face fundraising on their streets. At present, 50 per cent of face-to-face marketing occurs on the streets of London.

Charities continue to feel the pinch from the stock market slump, which has diminished their investment returns, plus a lingering “lottery effect”, so finding new and steady ways to fill the coffers is imperative. The most recent figures show that, last year, street collection – cash and direct debits – was by far the most common way of receiving donations, accounting for 20.8 per cent of donors, but only 2.9 per cent of donations.

The Public Fundraising Regulatory Authority (PFRA), the trade body for street and door-to-door fundraising, says its members signed up 690,000 direct debit donors last year, pledging &£240m. PFRA director Sue Brumpton denies the practice is intrusive: “You can say no. I step over an equal amount of homeless people on the way to work.”

Nevertheless, charities are horrified at the negative coverage that chugging has attracted, and defend its effectiveness. Christian Aid head of fundraising Andy Taylor says: “We do it because it works.” Amnesty International supporter recruitment manager Joel Voysey takes a similar line, saying: “Charities are not naive and we wouldn’t do it if it didn’t work.” Some 64 per cent of new supporters to Amnesty International come through face-to-face fundraising. But Voysey does sound a note of caution. “The jury is still out on how long it will be effective,” he says.

The National Deaf Children’s Society is one of the heaviest users of face-to-face fundraising. Last year, 62,271 donors signed up to direct debits, accounting for 60 per cent of the charity’s income. Anne Bolitho, director of fundraising, membership and public relations for the charity, refutes the suggestion that the method is not cost-effective. She says that over the past three years its face-to-face fundraising has seen a 3:1 return and is particularly effective in attracting younger donors, with an average age between 35 and 40 years compared with those aged over 60, who tend to respond to direct mail.

Charities accept that face-to-face fundraising has high attrition rates, but say this downside is often countered by the higher value of donations. Bolitho points out that direct marketing, too, has high costs attached and that the average gift is &£20 a year, compared with an average of &£80 a year for donors who have signed up to direct debits on the street.

Taylor accepts that during the past ten years fundraising has become much more competitive. He adds: “Some charities have become more strident, but this is not necessarily a bad thing and there is no evidence that it is counterproductive.”

The same attitude has also been carried through to advertising for some charities. The deliberately distressing imagery of the Barnardo’s campaign is the most recent in a series created by Bartle Bogle Hegarty (BBH). But Barnardo’s is not alone in calling on shock tactics to get its message across. The Royal Society for the Prevention to Cruelty to Animals’ current anti-hunting campaign features a photograph of a mauled fox. The NSPCC has also courted controversy with hard-hitting ads, most recently showing a boy at the bottom of a flight of stairs with the caption “real children don’t bounce back”.

The Barnardo’s campaign has attracted more than 400 complaints to the Advertising Standards Authority, which is convening its council next week to discuss the case after being unable to reach an immediate agreement on the campaign’s future.

BBH group director Steve Kershaw puts up a spirited defence of the advertising the agency has created for Barnardo’s. He accepts that using shock tactics is a way of making the most of a limited budget. “How do you get a lot of clout for not a lot of money? Nice images get completely missed. While it’s not Benetton, it’s a trigger – to get the real issues discussed,” he says.

Amnesty International decided to move away from the shock direct mailers it used to send out, showing torture victims with their eyes gouged out. Voysey says its new, softer approach is much more effective. However, he does add that Amnesty reserves the right to return to shock tactics in the future.

The alternatives to shock advertising and face-to-face fundraising are not obvious as other forms of targeting potential donors, such as direct-response television, can be more costly. But shock tactics can only work if used sparingly, and that means the sector’s marketers and fundraisers will have to think of new ways to get us to part with our cash.

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