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New research poses a challenge to the Big Society and an opportunity for me to return to an old argument....

A few years ago I caused some irritation among philanthropy experts and charities by attacking chugging (derivation 'charity mugging'). I argued, first, that charities should be seeking to develop long term relationships with people. We should try harder to persuade people to give time and effort  rather than simply donations (a parenthetic point was to reflect on how much innovation and investment many charities have put into fundraising and how little, in comparison, into membership/volunteer engagement).  Second, I expressed concern that chugging would at best see donations displaced from one cause to another, and could lead eventually to reputational damage to the whole sector (especially if people twig that the first several months of the standing order you make out goes to the chugger not the charity).

In as much as my remarks got a reaction it was this: ‘chugging works, it is just another form of charity marketing, chuggers and donors enter into it voluntarily and anyway it’s none of your business’.

New research from Bristol University and Cass Business School seems to give some support to the displacement thesis. In the thirty years between 1978 and 2008 – a period in which charities have got more and more sophisticated in using new fundraising techniques, including chugging - the average proportion of a person’s income which is given to charity has stayed low and barely risen, from 0.3% to 0.4%.

But what about the other suggestion – that chugging damages the reputation of charity?

When I get the tube from Oval station I am more and more regularly accosted by people waving buckets. They don’t inspire much confidence. They are often tattily dressed in grubby animal costumes.They tend to collecting for rather obscure charities and I assume that a very high proportion of what they earn – in what is a kind of legitimised begging – goes back into the collectors’ pockets.

A couple of days ago I was confronted at Regents Park by a wild eyed guy dressed as a dragon singing the words ‘give to disabled’ over and over to the tune of Frere Jacques. He seemed to have credentials in a badge hanging off the greying synthetic fur of his costume but it struck me that it would hardly be difficult to fake an identity card with a plausible charity name and number.

I guess you could say these collectors are doing no harm, and maybe that they are exhibiting a kind of low level entrepreneurialism.  But if people have a relatively fixed propensity to give, and if most of the money these collectors get goes to them and the rest to charities of dubious quality; then there is a direct detrimental impact on the income of better causes. Many development charities are worried that the best messages for raising  money may actually reinforce negative stereotypes about global poverty and its causes. I don’t think being seen to be reliant on the beneficence of blokes like the Regents Park dragon does much for the image of people with disabilities.

I can’t be the only person who thinks this all looks a bit tawdry and dodgy. Does it chip away at our faith in charity, providing a good excuse for cynicism for those who would rather not give anyway? It certainly isn’t a good advert for the Big Society. And if this grey economy of giving relies on desperate people willing to go to great lengths to earn a crust (with the added bonus of ‘doing good’, however nominally) it is likely to grow as austerity bites.  

I suspect that the mainstream charities may share some of these concerns. But these organisations are not in any position even to be morally superior. Because what really is the difference in principle between crazy dragon man and the attractive young student who used his not inconsiderable charm to try to stop me walking down Villiers Street without giving a donation to World Vision (he followed me for about 30 metres before giving up)?

One way to reverse the tide of ever more intrusive street collecting would be for the big charities publicly to give up chugging. But this would require them to work together, putting aside their own organisational interests for the good of the sector and society as a whole.  And, as anyone who works in the third sector knows, this isn't nearly as easy to achieve as might be hoped.

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