Big-name charities resume controversial fundraising tactic

·7 min read
Big-name charities to have resumed door-to-door fundraising - Shuttershock
Big-name charities to have resumed door-to-door fundraising - Shuttershock

Charities are increasingly using controversial door-to-door fundraising as they capitalise on people working from home, The Telegraph can disclose.

The number of direct debit sign ups on the doorstep is on course to double pre-Covid levels this year, figures from the Chartered Institute of Fundraising show.

Oxfam and VSO are among the big-name charities to have resumed door-to-door fundraising since the pandemic began, having previously said that they would not knock on people’s doors to ask for money, investigations by The Telegraph have found.

Controversy surrounding cold-calling at people’s homes means that a number of household names, including Age UK and RNLI, have assured the public that they do not use the method.

The RNLI says that it does not condone door-to-door fundraising “due to concern over safety and public trust”.

Door knocking 'deepens connection between person and cause'

It is consistently one of the most complained about methods of charity collection, with concerns raised about its intrusive nature, the impact that it has on the elderly and vulnerable and the use of companies who pay fundraisers on commission.

However, charity sector experts argue it is a valuable way of raising money.

Daniel Fluskey, director of policy and communications at the CIOF, the professional membership body for UK fundraising, said that “a real-life conversation is meaningful, memorable, and deepens the connection between an individual and a cause” and knocking on people’s doors in a “respectful and engaging way” is a “brilliant” way to do this.

He added that “since lockdown people's habits and ways of working have changed and we've seen door-to-door fundraising have some great successes bringing in new supporters and raising significant amounts of money, at a time where it is really needed”.

The figures, obtained by The Telegraph, show that the number of on the door sign ups have almost doubled in the last four months compared to the same period in 2019.

In May 2022, the latest data available, members of the CIOF reported 30,669 sign ups compared to 17,933 in May 2019.

Issue came to a head in 2015

Controversy surrounding the door-to-door and street fundraising peaked around 2015 when “chuggers” employed by private companies were found to be ignoring requests to leave people alone, misrepresenting charities and using “high pressure” tactics.

The ensuing crackdown saw the establishment of the Fundraising Regulator and a new code of conduct which banned fundraisers from calling after 9pm, from guilt-tripping people into giving money or preventing them from shutting the door.

But community forums still see complaints of “intimidating” practices and reports that homeowners when they refused to donate were questioned about whether they “did not care about sick kids”.

Earlier this year one residents’ group in Shoreham complained that “pushy” fundraisers were knocking in the dark and behaving in a way that was “intimidating for the elderly and annoying for those dealing with their children and other things”.

Another woman raised concerns that her dementia-suffering father in his late 80s had signed up to a number of direct debits which she thought may have come from door-to-door fundraisers.

Charity experts insist that the industry has cleaned up its act, as proven by the fact that overall complaints about the practice to the Fundraising Regulator have fallen dramatically in recent years.

Both Oxfam and VSO said that they made the decision to restart door-to-door fundraising because it is one of the most "cost-effective" ways of recruiting new supporters and their fundraisers abided by the code of practice.

Door-to-door fundraisers are back

Six years ago, as public trust in charities fell to an all-time low, a number of big-name organisations vowed that they would no longer knock on people’s doors asking for money.

It came amid a storm of controversy around a range of fundraising methods when it emerged that 92-year-old poppy seller Olive Cooke had received more than 3,000 letters a year from charities before she took her own life.

Now, quietly, as the pandemic has changed the way that people live and work and charities are becoming increasingly desperate for funds, door-to-door fundraisers are back.

Sarah, who lives in east London, said that her block of flats is now regularly approached by the fundraisers – known as “chuggers” or “charity muggers” - and she believes that they are targeting the increased number of people working from home.

“They often come at around tea time when I am trying to feed my two-year-old and I have had occasions when the same charity knocks several times a day even though I have asked them not to,” she said.

“I find it really intimidating and intrusive and I have had them knocking at 8pm, when my son is asleep, and then being rude when I ask them not to do it.”

Charities are known to profile areas to see where people have given in the past and approach those that they believe are most likely to sign up, which has led to certain postcodes claiming that they are deluged.

The Royal British Legion found itself in the eye of the storm in 2015 after undercover reporters revealed that the firm they were using to collect cash had been misleading potential donors and ignoring ‘no cold caller’ signs.

Last night a spokesman said that they have not employed “professional or contract paid fundraisers to conduct door-to-door fundraising activity” since, although during the Poppy Appeal some volunteers may conduct house to house collections asking for one off donation.

The RNLI also took the decision to drop door-to-door fundraising in 2016 because it did not fit with their “new opt-in-only communications policy”. They tell fundraisers that they do not condone it because of “public trust”.

Oxfam, which recognises that the method “creates higher risks in balancing the right to give and the need to protect” the vulnerable, began door-to-door activity in November 2021.

A spokesman said that they had intended to restart earlier but were delayed by the pandemic. All their fundraisers are in-house, are trained in line with the code and do not work on commission.

“The decision was taken because it is one of the most cost-effective ways of recruiting and engaging regular supporters,” the spokesman said.

They added that “since recommencing door-to-door fundraising and knocking on tens of thousands of doors, we have had four complaints” and every one is taken seriously and used to prevent future mistakes.

Their reasons were echoed by the VSO whose head of public fundraising, Gillian Claugher, said that research had found it was “the best value and most cost-effective ways for VSO to gain new supporters in an increasingly challenging fundraising environment”.

She added that it allows them to explain their work and the engagement with the public is “evidenced by the high number of people who choose to support us for many years after learning about us through door-to-door fundraising”.

But VSO refused to reveal whether its fundraisers were paid on commission, saying that its “commercial terms” with fundraising agencies “are confidential”.

Charities now 'much more aware of good practice'

The decision to raise money door-to-door was backed by Gerald Oppenheim, chief executive of the Fundraising Regulator, who told The Telegraph that the industry had cleaned up its act since the scandals of 2015.

Mr Oppenheim, whose organisation introduced the code of practice fundraisers must abide by in 2016, said: “"If you go back to 2015 there were instances, particularly on the street, where somebody said 'no, thank you' and the fundraiser would not let them go. They are not allowed to do that now. Charities and fundraisers are much more acutely aware of good practice and what is appropriate.”

He said that the regulator kept complaints under constant monitoring and would intervene if there was an emerging issue, even more contentious practices such as knocking up until 9pm at night were not proving to be a problem.

“Our message to charities is always to just think this through very carefully because from September to March it gets dark early and people are less inclined to answer the door, that they may be nervous about it and fundraisers need to be respectful," he added.

"We would review it if it was shown to be a major problem, but there is no indication that it is, and charities do less door-to-door fundraising over the winter months."