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The voice of Scotland’s vibrant voluntary sector

Published by Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations

TFN is published by the Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations, Mansfield Traquair Centre, 15 Mansfield Place, Edinburgh, EH3 6BB. The Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations (SCVO) is a Scottish Charitable Incorporated Organisation. Registration number SC003558.

Through the eyes of a fundraiser

This feature is almost 9 years old

Three charity fundraisers spoke to TFN about a world where profit is everything and you’re only as good as your last sign up

Colin, 30, from Glasgow has worked in a variety of fundraising roles in Glasgow and London. He has worked in door-to-door, telephone and on-street fundraising. These are his words

Common to all types of fundraising is the extreme pressure to get results – and if you’re not hitting targets you won’t last long. I saw people fired on their first day.
At the end of the day, you are a unit. Your role is to turn over a surplus, a profit, so that cash comes in. Despite the unpopularity of hard sell tactics, they do work and that’s why charities use them.
It’s my honest belief that most people you’re signing up don’t really want to sign up. Even the most ethical fundraiser realises that. You’ve caught people in a trap where they are too awkward to say no because a lot of people would feel too guilty to say “no, I am not giving to a charity.”
Your job is to steamroller over any objections they may have.

Everyone was happy for you to push the limits as long as you’re bringing the cash in

It’s not really to have a dialogue, it’s to pretend to have a dialogue while railroading someone into signing up.
From each member of staff’s point of view you’re only as good as your last day’s efforts, so there’s not any real job security – one bad week, a couple of bad days, especially when you are newer, can be enough to get you back on the dole.

The ethics training is minimal
All of the companies cover ethics but the training is minimal. The companies exist to make profit and they won’t waste weeks of paying you a salary to train you in ethics.
Their aim is to get you onto the streets or onto the phones ASAP. The training is as much for the companies’ own protection as anything, to prevent them losing contracts.
Everyone was happy for you to push the limits as long as you’re bringing the cash in.
You were encouraged to do what it takes to hit targets, but all methods of fundraising are horrendous and very stressful. You are interrupting people’s days, the vast majority don’t want to speak to you.
You’re told you are bringing the charity into disrepute, that the person will never support the charity ever again. You get that every single shift – especially with the phone calls.
People would become quite emotional on the phone, saying we had called dozens of times. The reason that happens is not because they are on some kind of list and to be deliberately bombarded, it’s because if it was a call to their mobile and they didn’t answer it they would automatically get called again. Sometimes every 15 minutes.
People imagine they are only dealing with a human and that someone’s good manners or guilt or shame will kick in and they’ll stop phoning. But these are huge enterprises involving modern technology and software that forms call queues and works out who to contact.
It will be the staff member who will cop an earful for it, though.

There’s a reason why it’s mostly young people employed. The companies wouldn’t declare they will only employ good looking young people, but it goes on

It helps to be flirtatious
On the street, the most important thing was getting people to stop in the first place. So, if you’ve ever wondered why you see these fundraisers behaving cartoonishly and prancing about, jumping around being over enthusiastic, it’s because they must get you to stop in the first instance.
You’re trained in techniques such as sort-of standing in people’s way and putting a hand out. Different companies vary on how much they tolerate.
It can be effective to be flirtatious. There’s a reason why it’s mostly young people employed. The companies wouldn’t declare they will only employ good looking young people, but it goes on.
There were people who would be like “it’s great, I got six girls’ numbers.” That’s not sanctioned but it’s tolerated.
Ideally you’ll also look like you could be an activist for the charity. Some of the people I worked with were quite zealous about the charities they were fundraising for – and the companies were quite happy to exploit that naivety.
I, personally, felt that jarred with my experience of the companies themselves, which are purely money making enterprises, who were completely ruthless in how they dealt with staff who had stopped being profitable.
Their support and advice for staff members, such as it was, was all about getting you back out and functioning again – there was never any real care about your mental health, for example.
There’s a huge turnover of staff. It’s the norm to breeze in and out in six weeks. I was there two months and I was one of the more experienced staff members in the call centre.

It’s all about competition though: charities are competing against each other, fundraising companies are competing for contracts and even within the workplace, staff members are desperately competing against each other

Charities are not doing it for fun
I can see both sides as I don’t work in fundraising now. I’m someone who has to walk down the street and it stresses me out sometimes when I see a posse of them and I have to plan how to zigzag through them.
There are days when I think Glasgow should follow the lead of other cities which have pretty much banned it. I get the impression though that when that has happened it has curtailed other street activity, the right to protest etc, so I could never support that.
The other side of it is that the charities are not doing it for fun. Charities are under huge pressures – state support they maybe got in the past has started to dry up, they are expected to provide services which in the past were funded by tax, funded by government. I get the impression that they are desperate and that’s why they are turning to these methods.
It’s all about competition though: charities are competing against each other, fundraising companies are competing for contracts and even within the workplace, staff members are desperately competing against each other and against their own previous day’s record. They are trying constantly to get results because they know that the sword of Damocles is dangling over them.
There are practices that need to be reformed but I am also very sympathetic to the individual fundraisers because they have a very tough job and they deserve better.
If people want to drift towards a smaller state and a lower tax base then you will increasingly have charities looking for their money.”

The cold-caller’s story...

Justine, 45, door-to-door fundraising

You’re expected to get two sign ups a night – if you got more than ten a week you got a bonus, so it was well worth putting the effort in.

It was very high pressure. If you weren’t doing well you would go on a performance review and be told you had to get four in three days and sometimes they’d put another one on, piling the pressure on.

On the doorstep you would get a pitch but were told you could always play about with it. You were told to smile, be pleasant and positive.

When we were on shift we were on from 3.30pm till 9.30pm. You’d go to doors where there were mums putting kids to bed and you’d get shouted at. Plus, you’d get people who were on night shift.

In places like Newton Mearns, where people have money, it was much harder, but in places like Linwood and Paisley they were much more generous. I managed to sign up a woman who was unemployed with three kids.

You’d get people bursting into tears because they’d had a bereavement. I’d walk away, but I know other people who saw that as a sign to move in. Targets had to be met. There was a don’t see, don’t tell culture. I also saw people really putting the pressure on, and it wasn’t right. I wasn’t comfortable with it.

The chugger’s story...

Aaron, 23, on-street fundraising

It was a good laugh, but it was definitely something you do when you’re young. You would not do it long term and I can’t imagine anyone having to make a living from it – the pressure would be awful. It was easy to get employed. There were always openings.

One of the best things about it was picking girls up. There was a sort of unwritten thing – it kept morale up.

We would always know the best areas for that – Buchanan Street in Glasgow was one of them. It wasn’t exactly encouraged, but it wasn’t discouraged either. It was expected to happen, really, and if you could get lucky and get a number while also hitting your targets, job done.

There was all sorts of flirting going on in the team as well – you’ve got a bunch of, not to be immodest, quite good looking young people, so that’s always going to happen.

I think people were recruited because they had a certain look – just look at most of the charity fundraisers you see on the street, you can tell they’ve been selected. It’s not totally about looks, they have to have a certain way about them. Studenty but cool, if that makes sense.

People I worked with cared about the charity to an extent, but I wouldn’t say that was the overriding thing. It was just another way of earning cash while I was a student.