Do charities realise the damage street fund raisers do to their brands?

tim burrowes landscapeAggressive charity fund raisers are causing brand damage, argues Mumbrella’s Tim Burrowes

The other day I watched an overly aggressive Save The Children ambassador almost knock a cup of coffee from a man’s hand on Sydney’s George Street.

A couple of days after that, I felt thoroughly patronised by an Amnesty International representative during an awkward social exchange in Martin Place.

And last Thursday, a Cancer Council worker rudely interrupted my phone conversation as I walked up Queen Street in Brisbane.

Not that these mercenaries really work for those organisations of course. They’re just wearing the tabards.

Definition of a chugger; Source: Urban Dictionary

Definition of a chugger; Source: Urban Dictionary

But I can’t help but wonder whether the price of fundraising for organisations is becoming too high for the brand damage it inflicts.

Clearly, the street fund raising strategy is a crack cocaine that charities would find hard to kick. Indeed, the very Urban Dictionary definition of Chugger (charity mugger) is now nearly a decade old.

I’m sure it worked very well, when the idea first emerged. But certainly in Australia, the point has been reached where the damage surely outweighs the financial benefit.

Rather than send your volunteers out to rattle tins, you outsource street fund raising to a third party company who will do so with hungry backpackers or students working on commission to grab direct debits.

Indeed, I know it worked well back in the day, because I still have a monthly fee disappearing from my bank account to Amnesty International. So long ago did that process begin, I can’t even remember the interaction that led me to sign up. It was before I wrote about marketing, and I was less cynical about the motivations of the person who signed me up.

amnesty international logoOver the years, when I saw the candle wrapped in barbed wire, I felt warm about the cause, and a sense of ownership.

But my feelings have started to change. Until I started to write this piece, I never consciously considered it: but the thought occurs that my primary association with the logo now is a bunch of pests on the street asking me for money, not the people interceding on behalf of a campaigner imprisoned by a repressive regime.

Like most people, when I spot charity tabards in the distance, I set my gaze in the middle distance. I shift an item into each hand so it’s easier to avoid the proffered, and of course entirely insincere, handshake aimed at getting me to stop and be pitched to.

As I say, that didn’t put off the Save The Children guy the other day. Despite the guy having a coffee in his hand, the fund raiser still tried to grab two of the man’s fingers. He only just avoided dropping the coffee.

I walked past a worker in mid spiel to a tourist. (Slightly illogically) I felt like going up to the tourist and warning him he was being conned. Do these charity brands really want their logos to be on the backs of people that passers by casually view as conmen?

But what would I have been warning the backpacker of? That these charities have decided the most efficient way to raise money for their undoubtedly good cause is to outsource it? That the man with the clipboard might not care as much as his script suggests?

How is that any different to any other form of marketing? I bet some of the most powerful anti-smoking campaigns have been written by smokers. Within agencies, much brilliant marketing on behalf of important causes has been done by black hearted monsters.

Logically, I understand that this is an efficient use of charities’ resources. Emotionally though, it still changes how I see these brands as a consumer when I see it in action.

And despite the fact that intellectually I knew, as I walked towards the Amnesty tabards the other day, that these people are not volunteers, or even particularly interested in the cause, in that instant, I felt myself obliged to explain myself, why I wasn’t stopping to hand over my credit card. Trying not to break my stride, I muttered that I was already a supporter.

With a smile that didn’t reach her eyes, the young woman raised her hand a said “High five”.

For some reason, this pissed me off more than if she’d glared at me. I think I felt patronised that this backpacker who probably wasn’t even a member of the organisation herself, who was probably handed her tabard and her script that morning (unfair generalisations, of course), was pretending to be delighted at my 20 years of support.

With characteristic British awkwardness, I said “I don’t think so”, and kept walking, feeling like a tool.

  • Tim Burrowes is Mumbrella’s Content Director


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