We all see the charity fundraisers in the streets, trying to attract your attention as you desperately stare at your phone in a vain attempt not to be noticed.

Opinion polls suggest high levels of public hostility towards street fundraisers, also known as “chuggers” (a portmanteau of “charity mugger”), with as many as 80 per cent of those interviewed being against them. Even I’ll confess to not liking them, and I’ve worked in charities for years.

Recent articles, like this one, have come out swinging against these fundraising tactics. Not only that, but these services are famously costly for the charities. This is a reputational risk for the charity as well as a monetary loss.

So if they annoy donors, are hugely expensive, and give the charity a bad name, why on earth do they keep being hired?

The chugger balancing act

For charities, street fundraisers represent a tradeoff. They know that face-to-face fundraising isn’t well liked, and it does put a bit of a dent in their reputation. But it’s very effective, especially at finding people willing to give a recurring donation.

It’s long-term sustainable revenue like that (people giving a few dollars a month) that allows charities to plan for the future slightly better. Most charity revenue is one-time – an event, a fundraiser, a day, or a bequest. This means that one rained out event, or one cancelled fundraiser, has the potential to seriously dent the numbers. Recurring donors, by contrast, give charities a fairly stable stream of money which they can then allocate to research, advocacy, or whatever they choose.

People with recurrent donations also give more – one study found average recurring donor will give 42% more in one year than those who give one-time gifts. Cynics would argue that donors forget about the recurrent funding and thus spend more on the charity than they would if you asked them for a lump sum, but it’s also intimately tied in with the psychology of how humans value money now vs money in the future.

Donors with recurrent funding are rarely donors for life, but they last much longer than ‘one-time-only’ donors. The average length of time they maintain their donation is 4 years. “Over 70% of people that we recruit into organizations never come back and make another gift,” says Dr. Adrian Sargeant, Professor of Fundraising at the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy at Indiana University. Whereas 80% of monthly giving donors are still there a year later.

And donations aren’t the only factor. Street fundraisers also help to raise awareness of a charity, though this is somewhat counterbalanced by the slightly negative associations with chuggers.

Effectively, the simple fact is that charities wouldn’t employ these fundraisers if they didn’t believe the tradeoff was worth it. Indeed, I know a number of charities held off on doing face-to-face because they were worried about the reputation damage. But then they, like a lot of other charities, realised that they were simply ceding donors to other charities who were willing to do it.


The numbers don’t lie

To look at just how influential face to face and recurrent donors are, you need to look deep in the bowels of charity financial reports. Most charities won’t pull out their face-to-face numbers but thanks to the Charitable Fundraising Act (1991), NSW charities have to provide some details on where their fundraising comes from. After a quick trawl through some annual reports I’ve found two that actually give broken down numbers: Cancer Council NSW and Amnesty International. They tell different but related stories.

Amnesty International is, thanks to its ‘sponsor a child’ program, one of the most heavily weighted towards recurring donations. Looking at the Amnesty International financial breakdown (Note 19, page 31), you can see just how heavily they rely on regular giving. Of their $25m in fundraising revenue, a full $21m is regular giving.

Looking at the Cancer Council figures (note 22, page 39), you can see that face to face revenue is not as significant ($15m in revenue out of $83m) but it’s still the second-largest source of funds after bequests. By comparison, Daffodil Day raises less than $3m.

Of course, we’re confusing two very different issues here – recurrent donations are not only raised from face-to-face fundraising. Most charity websites now offer a ‘regular donor’ option, and often irregular donors will be contacted to try and get them to upgrade to being more recurrent. Yet face-to-face remains a key part of the fundraising mix and the one of the most successful at getting regular donors.

I do feel for the poor fundraisers. I’ve worked with several face-to-face fundraising organisations during my time at charities, and they’re generally full of young, friendly people. It’s a thankless, soul-sucking job, and they’re actually doing a better job for charities than most people realise. Of course, you’d be far better to donate directly to a charity on a regular basis, thus cutting out the middleman, but in the absence of everyone doing that they will continue to walk the streets.