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Time to be charitable towards chuggers

Better a street in which face-to-face fundraisers are free to annoy us than one in which they have been banned.

Brid Hehir

Topics Politics

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Over the past few years, there’s been a lot of negative publicity about face-to-face fundraisers or, as they’re otherwise known, ‘chuggers’ – an abbreviation of ‘charity mugger’. This term was coined by the media to describe the persistent, assertive and mostly young people who work busy high streets and thoroughfares wearing bright tabards, holding clipboards or electronic devices, trying to get us to donate regularly to charities.

Chuggers certainly seem to have developed a bad reputation. In Wolverhampton, for instance, they have been accused of accosting, harassing and intimidating shoppers to such an extent that locals now cite street fundraisers above parking restrictions as a reason for not wanting to shop on the high street. Elsewhere, face-to-facers find themselves similarly demonised. In fact, due to the escalating number of complaints from shop owners and members of the public, various local councils, from Liverpool to Lancaster, say they are actively restricting, or considering how to restrict, where and how face-to-face fundraisers can operate. Islington council in London even went so far as to consider banning chugging completely, until it recently relaxed its position.

But just how big a problem are chuggers? On the face of it, it seems as if councils are simply responding to popular demand. People are reported to have complained of having their personal space invaded, of feeling ‘time mugged’ or pressured to give in a public environment. Others worry that chuggers are giving charities a bad name. There’s even a Facebook campaign called ‘Ban the Chuggers – Charity Muggers‘.

Yet a poll from January this year painted a more ambiguous picture of public attitudes to face-to-face fundraisers. So when asked if chuggers were damaging public support for charities, 54.3 per cent agreed that they were. But 45.7 per cent actually thought chuggers could be good ambassadors and bring in valuable funds. It’s fair to say that people seem to have a problem with the behaviour of overzealous chuggers, not with chuggers in general.

So why are charities using chuggers? On the face of it, the British charity sector is thriving. It’s well recognised that British people are generous donators to charities. In a recent global study, for instance, Britain was identified as one of the countries with the highest proportion of adults giving money, with nearly three-quarters (73 per cent) of British adults reported to have given in the previous month. Little wonder, then, that there are as many as 162,440 general charities in the UK.

However, in real terms, the level of donations remains at best steady, and it does not do so without effort. This means that fundraising is an ongoing ‘must do’ for charities. Some do this in-house, employing their own fundraisers, while others employ professional fundraising organisations to help them. Regardless of the particular strategy, nearly all charities fundraise on the streets to help maintain or increase their incomes.

There’s little doubt that street fundraising has become a cost-effective way of finding people to support charitable causes. For instance, just under 20 per cent of all donors currently giving to charities through direct debits or standing orders were recruited through face-to-face fundraising. The Public Fundraising Regulatory Association (PFRA) estimates that donors recruited this way make a combined donation of around £10million to charity each month (that’s around £120million a year). The reason for street fundraising’s success is not hard to fathom: chuggers are given ‘sign-up’ targets and have to be persistent and assertive in order to achieve them.

But does this mean that we need the council to protect us from the chuggers, with their clipboards and targets? There is already a code of practice drawn up by the Institute of Fundraising to which all fundraisers, including face-to-face ones, have to adhere. Enforced by the PFRA through a mix of self-accreditation, ‘mystery shoppers’ and a complaints process, breaches of the fundraising code already result in penalties.

Now, of course, some fundraisers break or bend the rules. But, if the comments on this Guardian article are any indication, many of us seem to find ways of dealing with overzealous fundraisers without the help of the local council. In the words of one member of the public: ‘I confronted the girl with the brolly about her manner – she looked shocked – it hadn’t occurred to her that her behaviour was intimidating! I saw her another day, arms by her side approaching people with a little more restraint. Result!’ Moreover, as the PFRA says ‘You might not like being asked to give by a “chugger”. But at least 600,000 people a year have no objection at all.’

I don’t think we should be asking the for councils to protect us from fundraisers. The streets are public places, in which we ought to be free to negotiate our own relationships. And whether that’s by giving some money to a chugger, or, indeed by declining to donate, the decision ought to be up to us, not cause-seeking councillors supposedly acting on our behalf. Maybe it is time to have another reclaim the streets campaign, but this time from the council.

Bríd Hehir is a fundraiser for Do Good Charity. She is writing in a personal capacity.

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Topics Politics

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