During my recent break from blogging, I've been keeping an eye on the debate about face-to-face fundraising.

It's been quite a saga.

It was obviously all kicked off by the piece on BBC's Newsnight. If you missed it, you can watch it here.

The central story was that charities pay professional face-to-face companies to recruit regular givers, paying up to £136 for each new donor they sign-up. 

Newsnight questioned whether this was a good use of funds, citing industry figures that show more than 50% of people recruited in this way cancel their direct debit in the first year. 

With the average annual value of a donor standing at about £90, their view was it seemed as though most of a donor's gift was going to the professional companies – not to fund the core work of the charity.

It appears from reading the PFRA response that it wasn't the most even handed piece of journalism…

'A Newsnight researcher revealed his real agenda when he told the PFRA: “I think if people knew how much it costs charities to recruit them then they wouldn’t sign up [via an F2F fundraiser].” We believe that the journalists working on this story set out from the start explicitly to persuade people not to donate via F2F because of the allegedly ‘prohibitive’ costs. Of course that argument could only be maintained by systematically ignoring the costs of other forms of fundraising, some of which work out at far greater per donor than F2F, and by ignoring the return on investment that F2F generates (often over 1:3). Essentially their agenda was not to ‘inform’ the public but to convince them of the ‘truth’ of their own personal – and false – prejudices.'

But stitch up or not, the sector doesn't seem to have handled this story particularly well.

When the BBC asked charities how much they spend to recruit a new face to face donor, only two responded – Cancer Research UK who pay £112 a head and the British Heart Foundation who pay £136. Newsnight informed us that other charities cited 'commercial confidentiality' as the reason for their reluctance to respond.

And though they were asked, charity CEOs weren't up for defending face-to-face on the show. Mark Astarita, Director of Fundraising for the British Red Cross, explained why

'Newsnight wanted to set us up in a head-to-head situation with a small charity that hates face-to-face,” Astarita said. “It would have been a David and Goliath-type battle which nobody would have won.  It would have been damaging to the whole sector and so everybody made a wise judgement not to play that horrible game."

“You could tell by the way they structured all the questions that they had an agenda – it was not an ‘investigation’, they wanted to make their story stick.”

In the end, Newsnight was unable to find charities to take part and so at the last minute decided simply to interview a charity that uses face-to-face.  That was when the BHF agreed to take part, Astarita said.

He added that if Newsnight had proposed a straight interview from the outset, he expected charities would have been queuing up to defend the practice." '

The trouble is, whether we like it or not, it's the media channels that set the agenda and if we don't respond intelligently, we'll all be worse off.

A recent survey by the Charity Commission has shown that over the last two years, 11% of people have lost trust in charities, with media coverage about charities and how they spend their donations seemingly driving this change in attitude.

Picture 17

Which is why I was disapointed to read about the debate at the recent IOF conference on face-to-face fundraising, where PFRA CEO, Mick Aldridge summed up the sector's reluctance to defend face-to-face fundraising…

'Aldridge's attack wasn’t limited to the sector’s reluctance to defend face-to-face, but also centred on the “intolerable and hypocritical… ‘slagging off’ that face-to-face receives from some of our so-called colleagues from other fundraising disciplines”.

“That is rank hypocrisy and it has to stop,” he said. He noted that direct mail recruitment costs “are many orders of magnitude higher than for face-to-face” and challenged advocates of that medium, and others such as digital, to publish figures on RoI and costs for general viewing.'

It seems that the PFRA is concentrating on defending face-to-face on cost – because it recruits donors more cost-effectively than press or direct mail it should own the moral high ground. That's fine if the debate is within the charity sector. But as we know, it's a little wider than that.

Mick has also pointed out that we need a champion to defend the technique. And he's right, but I'd go one step further.  We are one sector and we all succeed or fail together. We need every single charity in the land to commit to champion fundraising in all its forms. Because, as it is now,  it's quite obvious that few donors fully appreciate the impact of their response to our fundraising messages.

A series of nfpSynergy studies has found that donors think that just 25 pence in every pound they donate actually goes to fund actual 'work'. The perception is that the majority of their gifts are used to cover administration and fundraising costs.

And it's people like Rarry Revan, who comments on another piece in Civil Society, who suggests a blindingly obvious way that we can tackle this misconception…

'Get a beneficiary out there, maybe a cancer survivor who said without face to face I wouldn't be alive. Or an African doctor who learnt their trade because of donors who were signed up on the doorstep.'

By taking this approach we shift the debate from how we raise money to the impact of how we spend it. And every single charity in the land can help achieve this goal. It's not about big advertising campaigns either. We'll win this argument on the micro-level.

Take Care International for example. They have shown that the attrition rate of face-to-face can be halved by providing donors with personalised, high quality feedback on how their donations have been used.

And ActionAid generates response rates to thank you feedback packs that many charities would love to get from their actual appeals.

The fact that a significant percentage of people find face-to-face recruiters irritating is just one symptom of a wider problem. We have to remember that people complain about DM, telephone fundraising and even online advertising too. Donors simply aren't linking their gifts to any measurable outcome.  And we are verging on stupid if we continue to ignore the desire amongst donors to know what difference their gifts have made.

People pay for value and if, after a great face-to-face recruitment process, you find yourself on the receiving end of a stream of self-congratulatory newsletters and appeals for more money it's not surprising that you might feel a bit short-changed.

The moral high ground on this matter is well within our grasp, but it won't be gained through an internal debate about relative costs nor through interviews on Money Box or Newsnight.

Instead we should confront criticism through aggressively demonstrating the benefits of our work.

By doing so, we'll ensure that the amazing goals we are striving for – cures for disease, the eradication of poverty and the end of cruelty and injustice – are worth the inconvenience of a smile and invitation for a quick chat from a nice fundraiser on a street corner.