Face to face donor recruitment is back in the spotlight following the publication of a survey that reported 44% of respondents thought chugging was the most aggressive form of fundraising.

The PFRA was quick to respond, questioning the validity of the sample, the questions and the results.

I have some sympathy with their point of view.

As we've seen from the recent FRSB annual report, it takes thousands of face to face solicitations to generate an actual complaint. So it's worth taking a minute or two to ask what this research actually tells us?

Unfortunately, I don't have a full set of tables, but the details provided by Third Sector and Fundraising magazine show:

  • When asked which technique was the most aggressive form of fundraising…

– 54% chose doorstep campaigners

– 44% chose high street chuggers

– 43% chose telephone calls to the home

  • 39.7% said that they had stopped supporting a charity because of the way it tried to raise funds.
  • 60% said 'chuggers' had put them off supporting the charity they were representing.

I agree with the PFRA that this isn't a representative sample – but that doesn't mean the respondents aren't donors. Far from it. The survey was featured on easyfundraising.org.uk (a shopping site that ensures that a donation is made to a charity every time you buy something via one of their links).

It appears most users are recruited via charity partners, social networks and old-fashioned PR. As such, I'd think that the self-selecting respondents (70% of whom are women) are more likely to be active donors than we'd find amongst a sample that was representative of the UK population. On that basis, I wouldn't be surprised if the age-profile was significantly older than average.

Even so, I was surprised so many of the respondents described face to face recruitment as aggressive. 

Adrian Sargeant, back in 2003, actually found that most people who signed up to a charity through a face to face interaction reported a high level of satisfaction with the process of recruitment.

And the donors (and non-donors) we've spoken to about face to face recruitment in the last few years have never shown any concern about aggression. People have described recruiters as annoying, irritating or even as 'creepy', but none said they were aggressive.

The real problem with such a simple approach to assessing opinion is that that no matter the reality of people's experiences of being asked for a gift, the method of asking that most intruded into a donor's personal space was always going to be ranked according to whatever negative characteristic that was on offer – in this case aggression.

Focusing on aggression seems a rather odd, arbitrary, decision. If anything, the emotions that bother people the most when being asked are to do with embarrassment, not knowing how to say no, being inconvenienced by the interruption. Nothing to do with the emotions we associate with the results of aggression – such as intimidation or hostility. They asked the wrong question. And they were always going to get those answers.

But does that mean we can dismiss this survey?

I'd actually say no. Even though there is an obvious sampling bias and poor wording, I still think it has some use. Taken as a whole, it serves to highlight one very important point – people judge charities via the interactions they have with them.

In Bluefrog's 2009 research into lapsing – which can be downloaded here – donors told us that poor quality and inappropriate communications actively pushed them away from charities.

This is because inappropriate and unwanted communications generated negative emotions that donors didn't particularly enjoy. And when giving doesn't feel good, donors don't like to give.

So what makes donors feel bad about being asked for money? Well, this is what our research sample told us…

The charity makes changes that the donor dislikes or doesn't value

A change in name, purpose or a way of operating can cause an uncomfortable feeling. We found a significant number of donors voicing concerns over charities becoming too 'political'. This could also relate to exposure to different fundraising techniques.

Taking donors for granted

This takes many forms. Not thanking appropriately, asking too often, sending inappropriate communications or not recognising what a donor has done. 

Breaking promises

A broken promise tells the donor you don't care about them. It could be ignoring a direct request or failing to meet an expectation. This was particularly important for donors who were recruited face to face. Many described an enjoyable and engaging recruitment experience which was followed by communications that left them feeling let down.

Not paying attention

This isn't just ignoring what a donor does, but also what a donor doesn't do. Donors expect charities to understand what they like and what they don't like. For example, a number of donors said that when they refused a request to set up a committed gift, they tended to mean it. If they were asked again it made them think that they weren't very important.

When the ask feels inappropriate

Donors know that charities need money. They also know that they have to ask for it. But being asked at the wrong time, or for the wrong amounts, or by methods they don't like can generate negative emotions. And no donor enjoys to feel that they're being asked too often.

By not knowing when to stop

Donors were particularly irritated by the fact that they still received appeals from charities when they had asked for them to stop, or if instead of an acknowledgement or thank you, an appeal was the first communication they'd received since cancelling a regular gift.

The key point is that communications need to be relevant and appropriate for the audience. Mass-marketing techniques are always going to present a charity with difficulties. The goal is to have a strategy in place to mitigate any problems. My top three tips would be…

  • Don't be pushy
  • Respond to complaints as a priority
  • Keep a close eye on your data and treat your donors according to their wishes.