Just north of Oxford Street this morning I was engaged in conversation by a young man collecting for Save The Children. You know how this works – someone rather enthusiastic catches your eye and before you can say “don’t wave that clipboard at me” you’re into the finer details of child poverty/animal protection/medical research. For me, the pejorative term “chugger”, derived from charity mugger, sums up perfectly the odd relationship we Brits have with charitable giving and being asked for money.
This chap was good. He got me talking by mentioning a detail on my t-shirt, and despite my immediate statement that I wasn’t going to sign up, he was persistent, but in a way which recognised and responded to what I was saying. He asked questions, he had a sense of humour, he was informative. Off I went – and less than a minute further into my journey, at the top of Argyll Street, there were four people doing the same job, but this time for Battersea Cats and Dogs Home. It’s fortunate that they didn’t try me for a £10 monthly direct debit as I’d have exclaimed that the best possible outcome for this nation’s wildlife – and my herbaceous borders – would be if every cat in the land were euthanised before the sun goes down this evening.
The Government has started making noises about restricting the activities of street fundraisers. In 2011 it appointed Lord Hodgson to investigate the effectiveness of the Charities Act 2006; amongst his findings are recommendations about chugging. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-18862934 There is a notion (“anecdotal evidence” – which in my experience is almost always bollocks) that chuggers are too aggressive and are deterring people from visiting their high streets to go shopping. (Full report here http://www.cabinetoffice.gov.uk/resource-library/trusted-and-independent-giving-charity-back-charities-review-charities-act-2006.)
It is estimated that this direct, reasonably painless fundraising activity brings in £130m a year; highly effective then. I can’t think of many jobs I’d like less; working for McDonald’s would be one, of course. Picture yourself, day-in day-out, clad in some horrible high-vis singlet branded with the name of today’s favoured charity, come rain or shine, breathing in the fumes spewing from every passing bus, and being ignored, abused and disliked by 99% of people (author’s estimate) with whom you try to engage. I feel rejected if I post on Facebook without at least half a dozen liking or commenting on my great wit and wisdom; imagine being disliked even more than estate agents or tax inspectors.
At the heart of all this frowning must be the simple fact that British people don’t like to ask and don’t like to be asked for anything. Traditional methods or fundraising – direct mail, leaflets, adverts in magazines – are clearly not producing the required results, otherwise we’d not have chuggers on our streets. The cute little envelope through the door collecting for Christian Aid seems rather anachronistic in the 21st century.
What confuses me is why it is considered unacceptable for a man in the street to ask you if you’d like to make a regular donation to a charity – to ask you, not to hold a gun to your head, threaten to burn down your house and kidnap your guinea pig – but it’s just fine for the likes of Children in Need and other telethons to pump bleeding heart messages down our throats on network television for 12 hours at a time? Or for the tabloids to eulogise the marvelousness of Help For Heroes without a moment’s thought to the process and decisions that got Our Boys to be maimed in the first place. The chuggers are probably poorly paid and are working in pretty unpleasant conditions, whereas our Z-list celebrity friends are receiving lots of free publicity as they stare into the screen with a plaintive look on their heavily-modified faces.
The fact is that 42% of British adults gave nothing to charity in 2010/11; this statistic has remained consistent for the past seven years. Of those who did give, the median monthly amount was £11 (source: NCVO).
Perhaps we should hug-a-chugger next time one comes into view. Even in these dark days, many more of us could afford a tenner a month to help a charity do its good work. If that sounds like you, why not go onto the website of your favourite cause and set up a direct debit now, without having to be stopped in the street and asked? If we don’t like being asked, one sure way to prevent it would be to be a bit more charitable in the first place.