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How-to Library • Featuring articles from past issues of Contributions

Coming Soon to a Mall Near You
New fundraising technique taking hold

by Ken Burnett

Face-to-face fundraising, not as you might think, is the hot fundraising technique sweeping most of Europe now, and parts of the Far East too, and is just beginning to make its presence felt in North America.

With the cost of acquiring donors by almost any other means skyrocketing, fundraisers throughout the world are falling over themselves to grab whatever capacity the newly formed face-to-face fundraising companies can offer. Yet most fundraisers in North America are blissfully unaware the technique even exists. This won't last.

Before long this controversial "in your face" fundraising method will be as hotly debated in Atlanta and Albuquerque as it is in Aberdeen and Antwerp.

But what will it mean, when face-to-face fundraising hits the main streets and shopping malls of your local area?

Face-to-face fundraising, of course, has been around in various guises for donkey's years. In North America there's a long and honored tradition of large scale face-to-face solicitation for, say, capital campaigns, whereas in the UK most fundraisers have traditionally preferred to do their fundraising from the safety of a desk.

Yet in the UK adventurous fundraising organizations such as ActionAid were, by going house to house, recruiting donors to monthly giving plans as long ago as the 1970s, and large scale face-to-face recruitment of supporters to payroll giving has been around in the UK since at least the early 1990s.

Back in the Middle Ages the building of many a European cathedral was financed by a form of face-to-face solicitation (sometimes combined with the threat of boiling in oil, or similar). But use of this most basic of techniques for large-scale solicitation and acquisition of donors had been overlooked by most fundraisers until the late nineties when Greenpeace developed its "direct dialogue," where passers-by in busy shopping areas are solicited by specially trained young people and signed up on the spot to regular committed giving.

Such was Greenpeace's success at this in various European countries (the idea originated in Austria) that before long many major nonprofits, particularly in Britain, were jumping on this latest of donor recruitment bandwagons.

So successful has it been that many organizations now depend on it, as no other acquisition method can match it for volume and cost. Face-to-face recruitment of donors represents both a considerable challenge and one of the biggest fundraising opportunities to come our way for decades.

Many fundraisers have qualms about the technique but as innovative fundraising it's not to be sneered at. Having got ahead of the game, Greenpeace quickly rolled the concept out around the world and by early 2001 could claim more than 300,000 new regular donors recruited face to face. After several years of decline using more traditional recruitment methods, member numbers and income are both on the rise just about everywhere.

According to Neil Sloggie of Australian consultants Fundraising Solutions International Pty, who worked as Asia Pacific Region Fundraising Manager for Greenpeace during the major roll-out of direct dialogue in that region, this is traditional fundraising, one person asking another to give directly to a cause. It is fundraising in its simplest form.

'Being an asker on the street or at a venue is a hard job', says Neil. 'It requires lengthy hours and askers have to face considerable amounts of rejection and sometimes abuse by passers-by. Askers therefore need to be highly trained, well managed and exceptionally motivated individuals. Most organizations seem to find that only professionals can make it work, which means the cost is high.

'The basic concept involves professional askers signing people up to automatic payment donations asking for a high minimum gift so as to produce an acceptable return.'

Most organizations achieve this by only accepting donors giving by an automatic payment mechanism. Not accepting cash is seen to minimize potential for fraud.

There are many additional variables. Average gift varies, sign-ups per hour, in-house versus agency sales teams, sales locations, staff training, materials used, monthly, quarterly or annual automatic payments, and so on.

A successful innovation

One reason for the rapid spread of direct dialogue in Europe has been the high levels of innovation and professionalism in European fundraising markets, another has been the promotion of the concept by specialist face-to-face agencies. The technique has spawned a new breed of entrepreneur destined, it seems to me, to have to toil at a tough business, but one for which the rewards will be high by any standard.

Annie Moreton was Greenpeace UK's marketing director when that organization took the plunge on direct dialogue in 1997. It was Annie who made the decision and she appointed an external agency to develop the concept and do most of the work .

But she recognised early on that Greenpeace's own staff too would have a substantial role to play and, inevitably, this would involve them doing a lot of new work themselves.

Annie explains, "It became obvious after a while that even with an agency doing most of the work, we needed a staff member to work just on this. So we recruited someone part-time to do induction training, site visits and spot checks, liaison with operations, admin and accounts. This includes mundane stuff like ensuring canvassers wear the right clothes and have the right materials, through to such things as managing complaints from the public or traders, or the fact of a recruiter having a bag full of materials, including direct debit forms, stolen off the street."

Unlike direct mail or press ads, the face-to-face method was literally "in people's faces" and there were early concerns about the public getting "sick" of seeing Greenpeace on the street. As part of a thorough checking process Greenpeace campaigners and other staff walked past recruiters at least once a week. This enabled them to sort out concerns on an individual basis, and on the flip side there were positive reports from staff who 'mystery shopped' and found recruiters pleasant, well informed and not high pressure.

Once the system was up and running Annie was able to leave it to just two full- and one part-time staff. The first test in 1997 recruited about 2000 people at a cost of $60.00 (U.S) each, with an average gift that indicated Greenpeace would break even on these donors in just over a year. But now they had a group of donors much younger than the traditional direct-mail recruited supporter, and less likely to respond to conventional letter-based communications.

Greenpeace launched direct dialogue in Australia, New Zealand and Hong Kong late in 1999. Each program has been highly successful. Greenpeace's South East Asia office tested direct dialogue successfully in Bangkok in 2001.

Jan Chisholm worked with Annie Moreton in the UK before transferring to head up Greenpeace's fundraising in Australia, including the new direct dialogue program. "There's no hiding behind your computer with direct dialogue," says Jan. "It is high-energy recruitment and it demands high-energy retention strategies. I don't see it as an easy way to grow your supporter base.

"For me the shock was finding that we were often recruiting people who weren't giving to any other nonprofits. They didn't know 'the rules.' They had no idea they were supposed to respond to our fantastically smooth-running and cost-effective direct mail program once they'd joined. So they didn't. We had to talk to them and find out what it was they wanted from us."

Jan points out another fact about Greenpeace's experience of face-to-face fundraising in Australia. "In 1999 Greenpeace's regular 'health-check' survey found that nine per cent of the sample (representative of the Australian population) had heard about Greenpeace from talking to fundraisers on the street. Our 2001 survey, just carried out, has that figure at 23 per cent. Managed well, how much good for the environment and our campaigning efforts can come from so many opportunities to get our message out?"

The future for face-to-face fundraising

Although many people, particularly in the UK, think this form of fundraising will have a limited lifespan, its advocates are not so sure. Clearly if expansion goes ahead unchecked it has the potential to become a nuisance and to be limited by legislation sooner rather than later. But many remain optimistic that self-regulation by nonprofits themselves will achieve some limitation of the nuisance effect. And because face-to-face works so very well it would be difficult to envisage nonprofits giving the method up without a considerable fight.

Given the limited effectiveness of self-regulation in the past and the prospect of being ambushed by fundraisers whenever I go out for a walk, I'm sitting on the fence on this one.

I have to say that the young people I have encountered on the street (almost invariably when I'm running late for something or other) have always been nice and polite. I confess that on more than one occasion I have seen face-to-face recruiters and members of the public clearly enjoying their encounter. But I've also seen people cross the road to avoid a canvasser.

This tends to suggest that it's not the method itself but how it is conducted and perceived that will ultimately decide the public's verdict on this new fundraising method. Time will tell, and as usual fundraisers themselves have some control over the outcome. It'll be interesting to see what fundraisers make of it.

Particularly when hundreds of American nonprofits have embraced its charms and it has spread everywhere, including to a main street or shopping mall near you.

Ken Burnett is chairman of the Cascaid Group of companies in Reading, UK, and author of Relationship Fundraising, Friends for Life and other books (which can be ordered from www.whitelionpress.com). He can be contacted on ken@kenburnett.com.

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