Large numbers of donors sign-up through face-to-face fundraising each year in Australia, however its methods often lead to polarised views. Alex Green examines the issues around its growth..

Large numbers of donors sign-up through face-to-face fundraising each year in Australia, however its methods often lead to polarised views. Alex Green examines the issues around its growth.

Face-to-face (F2F) fundraising has existed in Australia for about eight years, and in that short space it has had a huge impact for many of the charities that have taken it up.

F2F is the process of recruiting monthly pledge donors via direct dialogue, usually on the street and through professional agencies.

F2F now accounts for the majority of donor acquisition budgets at many of the 40 or so charities doing it. Gregor Drugowitsch, a director of F2F agency Cornucopia, estimates that Australian charities are recruiting 150,000 – 200,000 new donors annually through F2F.

Some of the charities currently or recently engaged in F2F include: WWF, Amnesty International, Cancer Council, World Vision, the Salvos, Oxfam and CCF.

The recent and rapid rise in F2F can be explained by: Its success in recruiting donors, especially younger people. The attractiveness to charities of securing regular monthly donations. Increasing comfort with electronic funds transfer. Improved retention rates due to new communications technology (email and SMS). Strong marketing by F2F agencies. The snowball effect – charities witnessing the success of others trying F2F and adopting it themselves.

Helen Wright, direct marketing manager at Greenpeace Australia says that no other form of donor recruitment has worked as well for them.

“It fits our market, which is young, active people who are “in your face,” like our campaigns.”

Tracey Campbell, senior manager fundraising at WWF says they have found F2F is the only successful method of recruiting large numbers of monthly pledge donors. “F2F has basically replaced our direct mail acquisition, which we previously relied heavily on.”

While F2F has achieved excellent results for some charities, it has also attracted some criticism, often based on personal perspectives rather than professional considerations.

Advocates are a public nuisance

“Advocates” is the label given to F2F solicitors, and some people do not appreciate their direct approach. Some people will always object to unsolicited approaches, whether it’s over the phone or through the mail, but how can charities survive without donor recruitment?

Research by Charity Monitors in the UK found that one third of people list F2F as their least favoured method of being approached for funds. However, the Public Fundraising Regulatory Authority (PFRA), the F2F regulatory body in the UK, says there is only one complaint for every 7000 interactions with potential donors.

Charities represented by backpacker sales people

Certainly many F2F advocates are visitors to Australia on a working holiday. As a “mystery shopper” I met six who were all polite, knowledgeable, well informed, enthusiastic, presentable and honest about the nature of their reimbursement. All were worthy ambassadors for their charities.

High up-front costs

Expense must be judged against return. The cost of recruiting a donor through F2F ranges from 60% – 100% of their first year’s contribution. Seems expensive? Not if the donor is retained for an adequate period (the average in Australia is 3-4 years).

Coverage in the Sydney Morning Herald in December 2004 focused on charities paying high initial costs to F2F agencies but neglected to look at the long-term picture or return on investment.

UK experience

The UK is a few years ahead of Australia in its F2F experience, and charities there embraced F2F with vigour in the mid-to-late 1990s. It was even credited with arresting a decline in charitable giving.

However, city centre marketplaces became saturated and the media took a negative slant on F2F based on its cost and perceived intrusiveness. Recent legislation has restricted when and where advocates can operate but also increased quality control.

Martyn Day, chairman of Greenpeace UK says some organisations are now starting to end or reduce their commitment. “As with all of these ideas there is a period when the public accepts it, but then you start moving into problems of customer resistance,” he said.

Despite the negative press, UK charities continue to invest in F2F, and according to the PFRA, about 690,000 donors were recruited through F2F last year.

The Centre for InterFirm Comparison (CIFC) in the UK found that 17% of donated charity income in 2004 came through F2F donors. This was the second fastest growing source of donated income after bequests.

Australian future

In Australia, the capital city market is already crowded and this has led to site clashes and councils limiting permits. Charities are now looking for other opportunities to engage people face-to-face, such as regional areas, door-to-door, business-to-business, and possibly event-based recruitment.

At the same time, levels of attrition will probably come down as donor communication plans are improved and tighter quality control is brought to bear at the point of sign-up.

Representatives from charities engaged in F2F met in December 2004 to form an Australian equivalent of the UK’s PFRA. David Pettigrew, fundraising manager at CCF, said the group will address issues such as: quality control, media coverage, complaint handling and long-term sustainability of F2F.

On the face of it

The value of monthly pledge donors is clear. With a good donor communication program, monthly donors have a higher average annual gift size, a higher retention rate and don’t require multiple mail shots during the year. Results can vary greatly but an average donor recruited through F2F gives $25-$30 per month and stays for around 3-4 years.

F2F may seem expensive compared to direct mail recruitment, but that must be weighed against the significance of recruiting large numbers of donors straight onto a monthly pledge. It is certainly cheaper to convert your existing direct mail donors to monthly donors, but conversion rates are usually low.

The charities most likely to succeed with F2F are those that: have a strong profile; a mission that appeals to younger donors; a well resourced administration to support donor relations; and can afford large up-front capital investment with a delayed return.

For those running successful programs, F2F has had an immense positive impact on both donor recruitment and funding levels, and many not-for-profits have been able to expand their operations as a result.