Does Face to Face have a future?

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It is now over 20 years since face to face fundraising in its modern form was introduced to the UK market.

Paid fundraisers had actually been used for many years previously to recruit charity supporters door to door onto some form of regular giving but it was in 1997 that a fundraising agency working for Greenpeace brought this technique onto the UK high street. Other charities quickly followed and the rest is, as they say, history.

Face to face transformed fundraising in the UK as it has done in many other countries. The proportion of people giving to charity through regular payment means (today direct debits) doubled in the 5 years between 1997 and 2002 and steadily increased thereafter with a third of the population currently giving in this manner. The new donors were much younger than the supporters who were previously on charity databases and they behaved very differently.

There was much that we all got wrong with face to face. Everyone was inexperienced, agencies and charities. There was undoubtedly a bit of a gold rush and quality definitely suffered.

Few of us who were around in fundraising then would have expected the technique to still be around and play such a significant role over two decades later. But actually because charities and agencies did realise this activity needed to be managed, creating between them the PFRA which has been the worldwide model for how street fundraising should be managed and regulated, the technique is still a viable recruitment channel. It has morphed and adapted, results are certainly nothing like they were in the heady days of the late 90’s but good programmes run by solid agencies and in house teams for the right causes still work.

Will it still be around in another 20 years? I was recently talking to the managers of Concern Worldwide‘s highly effective in house direct dialogue team about this. Concern have been running in house since 2002 and their results are still market leading, particularly for supporter retention. The reason isn’t hard to discern, this is an operation run by highly skilled people absolutely on top of every aspect of the business.

What was abundantly clear from these conversations, if it wasn’t obvious enough already , was that face to face is all about people. The quality, training and motivation of the staff employed is what makes the difference between success and failure. The effective face to face operations, whether in house or agency, employ people who are outstanding at engagement and persuasion. Who do it day in day out, in all weathers, on the streets and door to door.

It’s a hard job and not many people want to do it. Only a few of those that do are really good at it and committed enough to carry on doing it. These individuals are gold dust.

So it’s disappointing that charities treat their face to face fundraisers so badly. There are exceptions of course, but many charities manage direct dialogue as a commodity, “buying” donors from agencies with little engagement with the fundraisers and most of that from junior staff. They are definitely second class citizens rarely remembered by the leadership of the charity and when they are usually for negative reasons.

More than disappointing, actually, actively damaging. Lots of people have been banging on for some time how the future of fundraising is all about really engaging supporters. Lots of money is now going into activities to attract, interest and engage individuals in a charity’s work.  But what about the thousands of people who every day engage members of public in conversations about charity causes on the street or doorstep? These are surely our engagement experts.

For those charities doing face to face fundraising, the only metric that seems to matter is number of donors acquired for a budget. And maybe retention rate. Nobody seems to even track, let alone value, the conversations that take place along the way. For each person that signs up,  hundreds of  people have been approached and ten or more engaged in a conversation. A charity that recruits 100 donors a week is having thousands of brand conversations,  tens of thousands of people have at least seen their fundraisers.

The future of face to face is surely one that sees this resource of highly skilled engagement experts used properly by charities. We need to think about this technique in a much more sophisticated way. This is a narrow-cast medium, with conversations happening one on one, the most powerful form of interaction there is. There is the opportunity to really understand potential supporters, to test messaging, to get feedback on how and when to ask and for what. And yet we manage the whole activity solely around getting one or two sign ups per fundraiser per day.

We know face to face is the most powerful form of marketing. Progressive charities will look at the direct dialogue channel as an integrated part of the marketing mix. The individuals making approaches should be considered not only as fundraisers but as brand ambassadors. Perhaps they should be called that. They will be trained and motivated to have high quality conversations and to turn those conversations into meaningful actions, of course donations where that’s the right ask to make but sometimes just getting permission to continue the conversation. They will gather and the charity will capture and use feedback from these conversations to better develop and refine messages and provide market insight. Staff could be employed in various models but no matter whether “staff” or “agency” they are treated as and feel themselves a full part of the charity and the community that delivers it cause.

None of this is easy to deliver and we must be careful of losing the baby of measurable fundraising performance in the engagement bathwater. But the prize is worth having.

So, yes this technique has a future, a healthy one but configured very differently. Charities will be engaging individuals in conversations in twenty years’ time and this will be a critical part of  their marketing strategies. But buying donors from agencies? I don’t think so.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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