Posts By: Kaye Wiggins

Cashback websites promising charity donations? Don’t get excited

Last week was a busy one for online fundraising.

First, Oxfam announced the launch of Compare for Good, a price comparison website that will donate two thirds of its profits to the charity.

Then ‘cashback’ website Quidco announced it will follow suit. Like Compare for Good, it makes money from commission paid by online retailers for directing shoppers to their sites. It pays that money straight into shoppers’ bank accounts, but soon Quidco will start allowing users to give the cash to charities instead.

So should charities start getting excited about this ‘cash for free’? After all, Quidco claims it could raise £35m for the sector this year.

Well, not yet. Until December last year, the Clever Squirrel website, which reclaims advisers’ fees on insurance policies and other financial products that are sold directly to the public, gave the reclaimed money to charities.

But after it carried out research that found 20 times more people wanted to keep the money themselves than have it given to charity, Clever Squirrel started giving the money straight to individuals. Since then, it has seen its number of users skyrocket.

The Giving Machine, a site similar to Quidco that lets users give part of the commission payment to a school or registered charity, proves a similar point. Users can’t keep the ‘free’ money for themselves, but the majority choose to donate it to local schools rather than charities – presumably to help their own children.

The theory behind these sites is that if people are offered money for free, they’ll be happy to give it away. But it seems most people are not. Whether due to greed, hardship or a mixture of both, members of the public want to keep all the money they can get.

So I’d be very surprised if a lot of people started giving away their Quidco cash. The Compare for Good model, which doesn’t let users keep the money but does offer them a useful service, looks more viable for the time being.

That is, until another price comparison site starts putting its commission payments back in shoppers’ pockets.

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Telephone fundraising might not be pleasant – but it works

Charity call centre scandal, screamed a headline in the News of the World last Sunday. The paper had sent an undercover reporter to a training session for callers at telephone fundraising agency Pell and Bales.

It accused Pell and Bales of using “shameless tactics” to “generate money from the jobless, frail and even sick.” The company’s training manager, Travis Hodges, is reported to have told trainee fundraisers that “if someone says they’ve just been made redundant, it doesn’t matter. For all you know they might have just got a huge pay-out!”

It said bosses monitored calls and reprimanded staff who didn’t ask for money enough times.

The article also accuses the firm, which last year agreed to end its practice of making ‘administrative’ calls to people who had asked not to be contacted, of calling people registered with the Telephone Preference Service.

If true, the newspaper’s allegations suggest that Pell and Bales is breaking the law and the Institute of Fundraising’s code. But Derwyn Jones, chief executive of the Panther Group, which owns Pell and Bales, told Third Sector the firm only called TPS-registered people if they were existing supporters of the charity and had agreed to be contacted.

He said it was difficult to strike the right balance between motivating staff to meet their targets and making them feel comfortable about their work.

“Charities have invested money in telephone fundraising and they need to get a good return on their investment,” he said. “And raising money over the phone is a difficult job, which a lot of people are not suited to. But we draw the line at bullying staff.”

The Institute of Fundraising and the Fundraising Standards Board will hold a meeting next month to clear the air about telephone fundraising. Charities, fundraising agencies and representatives from the Information Commissioner’s Office will gather to clarify the legislation and the best practice guidelines on the subject.

But will this work? It’s perfectly possible that Pell and Bales has done nothing in this case that is illegal or against any codes of practice – but it still ruffles feathers.

The truth is, telephone fundraising, like face-to-face fundraising on the street, is a difficult job and is inevitably driven by targets – which put staff under pressure to raise funds.

And, by and large, it works, raising millions for charity. A telesales culture in fundraising agencies might not be pleasant, but there’s not much any regulator can do to stop it.

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Funding the Future conference: policy was thin on the ground as Nick Hurd recycled his jokes

Shadow charities minister Nick Hurd announced to delegates at the Funding the Future conference yesterday that he was going to tell them something they might know already.

“There’s going to be a general election soon.”

It was not the first time he’d made the joke. He said it last week at an Institute of Fundraising conference, and Third Sector colleagues tell me he’s said it on other occasions too.

But if there is going to be an election, it would be reasonable to expect both Hurd and charities minister Angela Smith to use yesterday’s conference – at which more than 1,000 charity workers were gathered – to promote manifestos detailing what they would do if they became third sector minister after the election.

But alas, this was not the case. Smith took to the podium first, and gave a potted history of Government policy on the voluntary sector, which sang the praises of the NCVO’s Funding Central website, the recession action plan and Grassroots Grants (but neglected to mention the axed £750,000 Campaigning Research Programme).

She spoke about “challenges and opportunities for us all” and “building long-term capacity” but, aside from mentioning her excitement about the forthcoming social investment wholesale bank, did not discuss future policies.

Nick Hurd’s attempt offered more, but not much more. He reiterated his belief that the third sector should really be the “first sector”, said charities and community groups were the “glue that holds communities together” and criticised what he called Labour’s “initiative-itis”.

On policy, he said the Tories would start with making it easier for charities to claim Gift Aid, by cutting through what he called a “thicket of regulation”. But he said discussions on bringing in an opt-out system were “not going anywhere.”

He said he wanted to encourage individuals to donate more to charity, and he wanted the Big Lottery Fund to be more independent of government. He also wanted to develop a “culture of intelligent grant-giving,” he said.

But the audience was not swayed. As I left the hall, I heard delegates saying Hurd “didn’t say anything proper” and was treating the occasion as a job interview. Those I spoke to afterwards seemed unanimous in the view that things would be difficult under another Labour government, but that it was “better the devil you know”.

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An extra five hundred million for charities? Here’s why See the Difference is too good to be true

According to Dominic Vallely, one of the founders of the soon-to-launch charity video sharing website See the Difference, it is like being at the beginning of Google. At least that’s what he told me when I visited his offices last week.

Vallely restated his bold claim in terms more relevant to the sector. “Children in Need and Comic Relief pioneered the idea of donating through a telethon,” he said. “We’re pioneering the next big thing: the video revolution for charities.”

It’s difficult to believe that fundraising is about to be radically shaken up – after all, a lot of charities already have videos on their websites and share these on Facebook and Twitter.

But Vallely, who was previously a senior producer at the BBC, has some big backers, including Microsoft and Virgin Money Giving. He’s ambitious: he has set the website a fundraising target of nearly £500m in its first five years.

And there’s more to it than just a library of charities’ videos, which would rely on donors bothering to go to the website and watch them. The point is to make the charities’ work a talking point, so people email videos to their friends and post them on their blogs and social networking pages, just like they do with YouTube already.

But before charities start getting over-excited, there are a few things to bear in mind. You can’t just send the videos you’ve already made: they have to fit the See the Difference model of telling a story that highlights a specific project, and pledging to tell supporters exactly how their money was spent.

This means making sometimes complicated accounting arrangements so you can ensure that £10 donated to a specific school in, say, Tanzania, is actually given to that school.

The site intends to cater for a young, headstrong generation who demand to know exactly how charities spend their money and who are sceptical that a monthly direct debit would be absorbed into general running costs.

If See the Difference gets these people giving, it will have succeeded where many charities have failed. But the website could have a different effect: of reducing unrestricted income as people give directly to specific projects.

And in the long term, it creates a cultural shift. Charities are telling their supporters, in effect, that they have a right to decide where their money goes. Surely a charity’s staff, who have knowledge and experience in their field, should decide on the most sensible allocation of funding? Will it become tough to raise general funds if a “donor choice” attitude becomes widespread?

But there could be £500m at stake here – about a one per cent increase in the total level of giving in 2008/09. For that amount, giving more of a say to demanding donors could be a risk worth taking.

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The Right to Ask campaign misses the point

The question of whether charities have a “right to ask” the public for donations has been stirring up controversy lately.

The Institute of Fundraising wants to remind the public that fundraisers – whether they stop you on the street, knock on your door while you are in the middle of dinner or phone you at home – have the right to do so because their beneficiaries need funds.

The aim of its campaign would be to reduce bad feeling among the public towards charity fundraisers, and to give fundraisers a more positive attitude to their work.

The institute is right to address the issue, but I think it is missing the point. Plenty of charity fundraisers know that they have a “right to ask”. The trouble is, most of the general public do not feel confident about their own right to say no.

I used to get annoyed and even embarrassed when I was stopped by face-to-face fundraisers. I felt guilty about not signing up. My new approach – of explaining that I do my charitable giving online and will not sign up in any other way – seems to be working well. But the trouble is, I am in a minority.

If people felt able to politely say no without feeling guilty about it, they wouldn’t have such a problem with fundraisers. If they wanted to support the charity’s work, they’d sign up. And if not, they’d let the charities spend their time talking to other people who might.

But I suspect this is a message the sector is less keen to promote. People do sign up because they feel guilty, and this is probably more common with face-to-face and door-to-door than with other types of fundraising. If these folk started saying no, charities could be sacrificing cash to appease public opinion.

Is it a price the sector is willing to pay?

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What is it like to be a chugger? I asked one, and this is what he told me

I never used to stop for chuggers. Before I became Third Sector‘s fundraising reporter, I was one of those annoyed members of the public who walked past quickly, avoided eye contact and mumbled “No, sorry” to any fundraiser who tried to stop me.

I still maintain that I will never sign up for a direct debit on the street, just like our blogger Felicity Donor. I’d much rather choose my charity and donate online. But unlike Felicity I now, instead of ignoring chuggers completely, stop to politely explain why there’s no point in them trying to persuade me.

And so, as I was walking down the high street in Hammersmith the other day, I stopped for the bearded hippy in an EveryChild jacket who waved enthusiastically to me.

He asked me what I did for a living, so I fessed up. “I’m a journalist,” I said. “I cover charity fundraising for Third Sector magazine.”

But instead of smiling and giving up, as chuggers usually do in response, he was intrigued. “It’s a real scandal, you know,” he said, “agencies pay chuggers loads of money. I used to earn £500 a week from an agency.”

I replied that people were often annoyed about chuggers getting paid, but it’s surely unreasonable to expect fundraisers to stand in the freezing cold all day for nothing.

“Yeah,” he said, “but there’s more…”

According to him, there’s a widespread belief among street fundraisers that if an agency decides it doesn’t want a particular chugger any more – perhaps because that chugger is becoming jaded – the agency will find an easy way to fire them.

“They’ll put you in a quiet area, with a rubbish team and a difficult charity, then set you high targets. Then they’ll get rid of you if you don’t meet them,” he said.

And becoming jaded was partly why he quit his agency job and started working for EveryChild, which employs its own team of chuggers.

“You never feel any connection to a charity when you’re working for an agency,” he said. “You just move from one to another every week. I never want to work for a profit-making business again.”

He also said he could never imagine himself doing anything other than chugging. “I’ve been doing it for four years,” he said. “I like fresh air, I like talking to people and I like raising money for a good cause.”

But what about the bad press, and the abuse from the public? That’s life, he told me, and you can’t let people grind you down.

And after all that, he let me wander off. He didn’t even ask me to sign up.

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Think it’s easy to define volunteering? Think again

I think I have found the common thread that unites people who work in volunteering: they love a good debate, but they know it will never lead them to agree.

The topic for discussion at Volunteering England’s AGM earlier this week was ‘Volunteering for profit: is it ever ok?’

John Ramsay, head of volunteering at Age Concern and Help the Aged and a panel member for the debate, acknowledged early on that some people struggled to see the point of it.

When he told his colleagues about the discussion topic, he said, their response was: “Rather than having your esoteric debate, why don’t you come back to the office and do some work?”

At first, I was on his colleagues’ side. Surely the answer is simple: if you do unpaid work for a charity or a community group, it’s volunteering. If you do it for a business, it’s work experience. Why waste time talking about it?

But as it turned out, things got much more complicated. A divide emerged between the stalwarts who thought volunteering should only happen in the voluntary sector, and the movers-with-the-times who had different ideas.

What if, for example, you volunteered as a befriender in a private care home? The job has to be done by a volunteer, because residents appreciate the efforts of someone not paid to be there for them. But the home might make more profit by having befrienders.

And anyway, an audience member pointed out, many charities tender for contracts from local authorities. If having volunteers means a charity wins a contract, and thus expands and starts paying its staff more, aren’t those staff making profit from volunteering?

All sensible points, I was thinking, but why does it matter what ‘counts’ as volunteering and what doesn’t? Justin Davis Smith, Volunteering England’s chief executive, told me some volunteer centres refused to refer volunteers to private sector organisations. And that’s why it mattered.

So it’s a shame, really, that no-one could agree. The closing comment from David Brindle, public services editor at The Guardian and chair of the debate, was telling. “There seem to be a lot of unresolved issues here. Maybe you should sort them out before you start talking to the media.”

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