(First published in the Manawatu Standard and Nelson Mail, August 10.)
I was working at home the other day when there was a confident, assertive knock on the front door.
I opened it to find a young man (well, young to me) wearing a badge and bib that identified him as representing a well-known rescue service-cum-medical emergency charity which I won’t identify.
It was a bitterly cold day and he was soaking wet, but that didn’t stop him from launching straight into an obviously well-rehearsed spiel.
He first wanted to know whether I or any of my family had ever been helped by the charity he represented. I’m sure that if I’d answered yes, there would have been subtle emotional pressure to support this worthy cause. After all, they’d helped me; now it would be my chance to repay the favour.
As it happened, I’d never used the service, so he struck out there. But without missing a beat, he moved on to option two.
He proceeded to tell me that the charity was in dire financial straits and its continued operation was in doubt unless it promptly raised a very large sum of money. This was urgent; the implication was that lives would be lost if I didn't immediately agree to contribute.
He went on to say that he’d been canvassing the area and my neighbours had readily signed up. I was a little sceptical because many of them aren’t home during the day. Anyway, from my knowledge of them, I can’t imagine they would commit to support a charity off the cuff.
I wasn’t prepared to, either. I told him that I would consider contributing because it was a worthy cause, but I wasn’t prepared to make any commitment right there on the spot. I explained that I already supported a range of charities and had to consider whether I could afford any more. I did say, however, that I would go to the charity’s website and possibly make a donation there.
He then asked me my name so he could enter it in his digital device. Up till now I had been relaxed about this intrusion. I felt sorry for him because he must have been wretchedly cold. But at this point I stiffened and adopted a sharper tone.
“I’ve already made it clear to you,” I said, “that I’m prepared to consider giving money, but I’m not going to make a commitment here and now.” He pretended to be surprised, but obviously sensed there was no point in pursuing the matter. He said a polite goodbye and left.
I was left with a feeling of disquiet. The charity he was soliciting for operates an essential and very highly regarded service. I couldn’t imagine that it would approve of anyone going around the neighbourhood using a subtle form of emotional pressure and a slick line of patter more typical of a door-to-door vacuum-cleaner salesman.
I made a reasonably substantial donation anyway, but while on the charity’s website I also sent them a message explaining what had happened. I said I took exception to his reference to my neighbours signing up – the implication being that I would be a flint-hearted stinge if I didn’t do the same.
I said I didn’t believe this was the image the charity wanted to present to the public, which is why I was taking the trouble to notify them. (So far, I haven't heard back, so perhaps they approve after all.)
The man on my doorstep was a “chugger” – a charity mugger. These are people who are paid to solicit donations from the public, either by approaching them in the street or by going house to house.
They represent an unsavoury development in the charity business (and I use that word deliberately). There are now so many charitable organisations competing for a limited pool of donations that they are adopting increasingly aggressive tactics which in this case, I believe, bordered on unethical.
The chuggers are not volunteers with an emotional stake in the cause they are collecting for, as many naïve people assume. They are hired guns who presumably earn a commission for everyone who succumbs to their persuasive powers.
But chuggers are not the only reasons many charities are getting a bad name. People also rightly object to being bombarded with endless emails and letters asking for more. When you make a one-off donation, you don’t sign up to receive these communications. But they come anyway.
What I find almost equally objectionable are the patronising, emotive and sometimes infantile terms with which some of these appeals are worded. I have been a regular contributor to the Red Cross for years but I considered stopping my donations when I received an envelope from them emblazoned with the words “You’re amazing, Karl!”.
Does the typical Red Cross donor respond to such patently false ingratiation? I doubt it.
What all this shows is the extent to which the charitable sector has been hijacked by hard-nosed, professional fund-raisers and PR hacks who probably don’t give a toss about the causes they’re raising money for, or the damage they might be doing to their public image. It’s something charities need to address and deal with, before loyal donors switch off.