The Blog

Please Sir, I Want Some More: The Secret Life of a Charity Chugger

"I was determined to quit. After knocking on my 80th door that day, I'd had enough. Ironically, I got fired before I had the chance."

The fundraising activities of charities have hit headlines across the UK. Following growing concerns about their aggressive tactics, it is being proposed that charities face tighter restrictions on certain forms of fundraising. Chief Executive of homelessness charity Changing Lives, Steve Bell, has argued for this overhaul to go further, advocating a total ban on street collecting and doorstep cold calling.

Now I am a supporter of charity and have dedicated much of my time and money to voluntarily helping others. However, I have always been slightly sceptical of the fundraising tactics of large charities and have therefore chosen to be directly involved in charitable activities rather than a distant donor. In a bid to understand more about the fundraising process, I reached out to a 20 year old student who spent her summer fundraising for a large international charity. She agreed to share her story under the pseudonym Anna.

Known popularly as a chugger - or 'charity mugger' - Anna's job was to knock on the doors of homeowners and convince them to financially support the charity she was representing. Or it was, before she was fired for not raising enough money.

"I got fired because I refused to work for free that weekend to make up numbers," Anna explains.

Chuggers aren't permitted to take cash directly from the public, instead their aim is to get us to set up regular payments via direct debit. She and her fellow chuggers were tasked with signing up 15 householders each per week, an average of three a day. Each donor committing to a minimum of £5 a month. That week, after managing to secure six sign-ups, Anna was given an ultimatum: give up her weekend for free to secure a further nine sign ups, or get the boot. The same choice she had faced the weekend before.

As well as sanctions for missing targets, there were rewards for meeting them. Anna and her colleagues were paid a basic wage of £7.30 per hour, a rate that was topped up with staggered bonuses. If she signed up the 15 people required each week, her pay would be topped up with a £50 bonus. If she signed up 20, she'd get an extra £100; for 25, an extra £150. And so on.

The monetary benefits were not the only incentives for the chuggers, Anna explains:

"I was quite shocked at the set-up. As part of the role, I lived in a six bedroom house with five others. We lived rent and bill free, only paying for our food and internet. Ours was one of many such houses in the area."

Anna worked eight hour days, similar to many of us, but what she did with those hours was very different. In a single shift she was expected to knock on between 70 and 100 doors, returning up to three times if there was no response, in order to get her hours logged. A process that was monitored closely by a team leader, who watched their activities from the end of the road.

Most chuggers do not work directly for charities. Instead they are employed by agencies, who are paid between £80 and £120 for each sign up that a chugger secures. This means that a large majority of a donor's first years donation, and sometimes almost two years worth of donations, will go to the chugging agency and the chugger.

Methods to secure donations were pretty flexible. Although all chuggers are armed with a script, they are encouraged to amend it to fit their 'personal style.' A tactic, Anna thinks worked to her male colleagues advantage:

"The guys were constantly surpassing their targets. They would flirt their way through presentations. It meant the job was a lot harder for the females in the group. We couldn't charm middle-aged women as easily."

I am encouraged to learn that there were some rules. Although elderly people are referred to as 'quality sign ups,' as they tend to donate larger sums over longer time periods, Anna and her team were told to avoid pitching to those who appeared vulnerable, such as those with Alzheimer's or dementia. Originally, they were also advised to avoid those over 75, but this was reversed after sign-ups dropped dramatically.

If Anna had not been fired, the catalytic combination of guilt and underperformance would have lead her to quit, she believes:

"I was reaching the end of my tether, I just couldn't do it anymore. It wasn't a job that I could do successfully whilst maintaining my integrity. I began to hope that people wouldn't open their doors because every time they did I was ridden with guilt. Towards the end, I gave up. I would just give out leaflets and direct people to the charity's website."

"When I spoke to my team leader about my struggles, he told me that the only way to succeed was to stop seeing people as people and start seeing them as 'money signs' as that is all they were as far as we were concerned. That is when I knew that this wasn't for me."

Anna's story is not unique. There are currently over 181,000 registered charities in England and Wales, that raise and spend close to £70 billion a year. Together they employ almost 1 million staff and make billions of 'asks' for money every year. Despite the obvious flaws in this method of fundraising, for chuggers, potential donors and charities alike, charities claim that door-to-door fundraising remains the most cost-effective way to recruit regular, long-term donors. After the recent scandal and adverse publicity, it will be interesting to see whether this continues to be the case.