Confessions of a former “Chugger”

Some charities really need to take a long hard look in the mirror and decide whether their methods of fundraising are actually as ethical as their cause. Believe me, I used to knock on peoples doors at teatime to make a living…

Charities need to urgently reassess their tactics after tragic poppy seller death

Last week, 92 year old Poppy Seller Olive Cook was found dead in Avon Gorge after throwing herself from the overhanging Clifton Suspension Bridge. She had become suicidal partly due the “exhaustion” of being continuously pestered for charity donations. Olive was known to be an unusually generous and caring woman who at the time of her death had no fewer than 27 direct debits set up from her bank account to various charities. However, this admirable commitment had led to her receiving endless telephone calls and letters from these charities asking her to increase her donations. Olive was elderly with declining health and so these snowballing requests were a source of great anxiety to her; to the extent that she became afraid to answer her telephone.

Of course, these charities cannot be blamed for Olive’s suicide but the fact that the relentlessness of the unwanted correspondence caused her such distress towards the end of her long and charitable life cannot be ignored. As a result, Prime Minister David Cameron has advised fundraising organisations to reassess their fundraising tactics. I must say, from bitter experience, that I completely agree.

I once had a job as a Door to Door Charity Fundraiser. Not directly for a charity, but for an organisation that fundraises for lots of the big names. Money was tight at that time and I was still brimming with post uni idealism. I lasted almost a week. The initial training was intense and sales driven and my voice quickly became hoarse from practising a hyper enthusiastic shopgirl lilt. We learnt how to memorise a script; over and over and over until it was like your mouth was creating the words without your consent. As if they were burnt into the memory of your tongue. Anyone who slipped up was sent home on the spot. I didn’t really gain much in depth knowledge of the charities that I was meant to be representing. This is despite the fact that according to a report by the BBC, one of the main reasons that many people believe that charity fundraising is unethical because of the lack of involvement of Fundraisers in a charity’s purpose.

Most interestingly, we learnt how to deal with excuses and practiced these in pairs, again in a relentless cycle where the words lost all meaning and you began to worry that you are jabbering away like a clockwork monkey, making incoherent noises. Common initial excuses included “I am just cooking the dinner”, “my baby is in the bath” or “I am just about to go to the shops”. Our general response to all these polite knock backs was to be “This will only take a minute” before continuing our pitch without missing a breath. This jarred with me a little. Again, according to the same report by the BBC, another key reason why many people believe that charity fundraising is unethical is due to the belief that “the fundraiser may use excessive pressure on potential donors so as to maximise their own payment”.


On my first day out knocking, I was surprised at how many old people’s estates that our route included. We made an orderly, systematic trail around neat cul-de-sacs of bungalows with hand rails by the door and porcelain dogs in the windows. It didn’t exactly scream megabucks. I knocked on door after door, shoulders back, smile pinned to my face like a badge of authority, and was greeted by endless snowy haired residents, hunched over with arthritis and suspicion.

Their initial “excuses” didn’t necessarily fit the neat knockbacks that we had been taught to quash. There was the woman whose faint voice was barely audible, who explained that she had cancer so if we could just let her some peace. There was the son who was visiting his parents who told us sternly that they were very elderly, so if we wouldn’t mind leaving them be. I did mind, and my cheeks burned with shame. I encountered numerous mix ups in communication, where a well meaning Pensioner would scramble for their penny jar whilst I had to explain to them, stuttering with embarrassment, that it was their bank card details that we wanted in order for them to make a long term, monthly direct debit contributions. To anyone who might be wondering, the questionable ethics of asking for a suspicious pensioners bank details over their doorstep were not lost on me.      

My first day was drawing to a close and I hadn’t made any sign ups. “Youll get the knack of it” said various, well seasoned Fundraisers who gave me various tips and techniques as if I were learning some sort of worthy, tangible craft; like carpentry or tailoring. Truth was, I didn’t feel comfortable pushing at people once they had made it clear that they weren’t interested. I hadn’t yet put my excuse bashing training to use. I was uncomfortable. But I also didn’t want to get fired. There are extensive pressures, very similar to working in telesales, to get donor sign ups. There is a commision based system based on the number of sign ups and daily and weekly targets. Workers who don’t meet their targets are very quickly disposed off. This is despite the fact that sales like nature of fundraising is what is often so repellent to potential donors. Such donors may view the fact that they are being viewed as a potential source of commission somewhat unethical, and I can’t say that I blame them.

The next door I went to I ramped things up a notch. The ancient, faded man who answered the door was tall but stooped with pain and tiredness. He shook like a pile of dried leaves, lifted on a violent wind and his hair clung in baby wisps to his liver spotted skull. He let me give my initial pitch before nodding and apologizing unnecessarily, saying that he wasn’t very good on his legs and needed to sit down. I bit my lip till blood oozed between my teeth. Then I let the words come, cheerily, like clockwork, dissociating my tongue from myself and my mind and everything that I stand for: “This will only take a minute”. Then I explained to him in excited, empty tones that his donations could make all the difference, quoting memorized statistics and spurting faux enigmatic buzzwords as if I was frantically shaking foam to the surface of a can.

He didn’t sign up. But that didn’t matter; I still felt guilty as hell. If somebody had treated my elderly Grandma in this manner I would have smacked them over the head with their donations sheet clipboard so hard that they would have had to learn their pitch all over again. I fail to see how such in your face tactics can in anyway help to generate long term loyalty to a charity, or indeed to promote a charity’s brand in a positive light. As a matter of fact, I believe that such tactics are detrimental to public support for charity work. Most people refer to Charity Fundraisers as “Chuggers” or “Charity Muggers”, viewing them as some sort of street irritant; sort of like grubby chip stealing pigeons but with clipboards. There is now even a nationwide “anti chugging movement”. Is this really the kind of image that charities want to project?

The high pressure nature of charity fundraising needs to be assessed, and the heavy handed sales tactics closely regulated. Moreover, age and ability of potential donors need to be taken into consideration. Charity fundraising organisations have the talents, energy and enthusiasm of hundreds of young graduates at their disposal. Many of whom have experience of getting involved in positive causes on a voluntary basis whilst at university. Why not harness these talents to train and create hundreds of events organisers, charity bloggers and social media experts who can use their intelligence and passion to raise funds in an ethical and non intrusive manner?

If the death of tireless charity supporter Olive Cook has taught us anything, then it is that harassment and badgering has nothing to do with charitable work. Olive Cook was passionate and sincere about her poppy selling duties; her first husband had died during the second world war and so it was an issue that was close to her heart. She didn’t need sales tactics or trickery. There is an awful lot that we can learn from her generous, genuine spirit.          


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