Keep on pushing and we won’t give

Chugging – a portmanteau of charity and mugging – is an unpleasant word for an increasingly unpleasant phenomenon.

Understandably, charities themselves violently dislike the term, preferring the more anodyne ‘face-to-face fundraising’. They would be loath to see what has become an important prop to the financing of worthy causes disappear from our streets.

Last year, for instance, street collection – embracing cash and direct debits – accounted for 21 per cent of donors. And, while the sterling value of such donations may be less significant, it is undeniably true that the field-marketing forces scouring the streets in search of custom form an important point of contact with members of the public who might not otherwise become involved in charitable donation.

What’s more, charities certainly need the money. They are reeling from a stock market slump that has hit their investment income, not to mention the longer-term impact of the lottery phenomenon, which has created both competition and donor fatigue.

So if street fundraising works, which it does; is cost-effective, which it is; and charities need the money, which they do, surely that’s all right? Well no, it isn’t. Because what’s been left out of this financial equation is an image problem that may boomerang on charities unless they become more subtle in their tactics.

Whether charities like it or not, ‘chugging’, not ‘street-collection’ or any of the other preferred euphemisms, is the term the media has memorably coined for what is often an intrusive and gruelling experience. Try walking the gauntlet of Piccadilly in London for a week and then arguing the contrary. The danger is that, however well-trained and courteous the field marketers may be, they risk being seen not as brand ambassadors but as ambush merchants, preying upon the morally queasy.

‘Chugging’ should be seen in the context of a charity marketing culture which, by and large, has become much more aggressive in the past ten years. Some would say that is no bad thing; that charities, too, must deal with clutter and that, to cut through, they have to shock and confront. A good example of this school of thought may be found at Barnardo’s, whose most recent campaign has attracted the dubious accolade of ‘most complained-of ad of the year’, according to ASA statistics. Clearly, it plans to outdo the British Heart Foundation’s wooden spoon achievement of 2002.

When adopting confrontational tactics, charities should ask themselves more searchingly: what is the opportunity cost incurred? In other words, for every donor converted by these means, how many who might have been swayed by other, gentler, means have been permanently dissuaded from giving? It is not only donor fatigue that is at issue here, but long-term alienation.

News, page 9; News Analysis, page 24

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