Doing good: One door at a time


You will no doubt be familiar with a fund-raising technique involving people coming to your door and asking for money for one cause or another. No matter how good the cause or how respected and established the cause,

the technique seems always the same. They’re trying to set things up on their terms. They’ve knocked on your door and want to engage you in a conversation until they get money off you. If you say you’re busy, they say ‘when would you like us to return?’

The one thing they don’t have is pamphlets for you to check out at your leisure. They’re obviously all following the same playbook or getting fund-raising advice from consultants who are. In any event, at the beginning of their shtick I always interrupt as politely as I can and say that I’d be very happy to take some material from them, but beyond that, I’m not available for a discussion.

This has just happened to me, and I’ve just hightailed it up the stairs to my office to get it off my chest and have a counselling session with you, dear reader whether you are of the commenting or lurking kind. I do try to be as polite as possible, but the process is almost invariably irksome. Confronted by an extremely well-meaning volunteer, I try to deprogram the careful sales programming that’s gone into the construction of the whole interaction by the professional marketers and fund-raisers on the other side.

After telling them that I’ll deal with them, but only via some material they give me, some say “well you can go to our website”, but they don’t even have a card to give me with the address on it. I say something like “I’m hoping you’ll convey to your managers that some of us won’t donate without being given material that we can consider in our own time.”

At this point, I trigger item #43 in their training. On this occasion the guy said to me “if you don’t want to donate, that’s fine”. I responded “I do want to contribute (it was the Alannah and Madeline foundation which as I understand it does great work), but I’m not doing anything without considering it in my own time”. Anyway, this triggers the next item in their training. I’m trying to go meta and these guys, nice as they are, don’t go there. Instead they default to the next part of the manual. So it’s all very frustrating.

Right now I have two resolutions. Firstly I must focus even more on being nice to these people. I’m not very good at it because I’m trying to get them to understand something which they seem carefully trained not to. And secondly, I’m not giving to organisations that try to pressure me that way – at least for a time. Perhaps if others do, the pressure techniques of door-to-door sales and doing good will become slightly less comfortable bedfellows.

This entry was posted in Cultural Critique, Economics and public policy, Ethics. Bookmark the permalink.

17 Responses to Doing good: One door at a time

  1. John r Walker says:

    I know how you feel. Apart from door knocks,
    I also get a fair few ” would you donate a work to our charity auction ” enquiries as well.

    Tend to say , there are a number of charities and community benefit groups that we already support,’ can’t spread it too thin’ ( which is true)

    BTW the sheer number of charitable purpose groups ,with DGR status , these days troubles me.

    Even within the ,on the whole well run national Church community that I belong to I have heard of fundraisers where the , costs ended up being around 30% of the money raised…

  2. Nicholas Gruen says:

    Indeed, there should at the very least be some kind of code of conduct methinks about the extent to which money should be expended chasing money. My guess is that it should be around 10%

    • conrad says:

      I’m sure you’re aware of them but there are organisations that rank charities based on these sorts of things. It seems to me the problem is that the best ones you often would never hear of because they really do pass on more or less 100% of the money (for example, I remember Paul F.’s blog post about his friends helping people in India — who would know about that otherwise?) and the only ones large enough to do large-scale things really do need a fair bit of admin. I think MSF which is good at getting freebies from doctors still spends around 20% on stuff not related to projects (and I’m not complaining), and Unicef surprises me by getting to about 90% (according to them). Of course one might wonder about how well the charity money is used also.

  3. Moz of Yarramulla says:

    My approach is the tedious “I will add you to my list”, which (possibly unusually) actually exists. Towards the end of the financial year I sit down and do some research, then allocate my annual donations according to my whims at that time. I try to make enough to tax-deductible groups to keep my taxable income under whatever threshold concerns me on the day.

    On a related note, my general response to people whining about small refunds/having to pay extra tax is always “don’t your charitable donations offset that so you always get a refund?” Cue that deer in the headlights look.

    Also, it seems nigh on impossible to “sell” tax deductibility internationally, or even locally. You would think that a $1000 reduction in taxable income would be worth more to a 1%’er than a povo like me, but not so. Even when the 1%’er is financially literate, I am very rarely able to explain that. I suspect it’s me. But really “you get $450 back from this, I get $240, can we do a deal”… how hard is that to understand?

    • Moz of Yarramulla says:

      Also, employers often struggle to understand that late bonus payments can cost money (a $2000 bonus that pushes you into the private health surcharge, for example – after tax it’s ~$1500, just enough to cover the surcharge. So that $2000 is worth literally nothing to someone on $90k. If it was $1000 the recipient would be $700 out of pocket thanks to the bonus. Same for $1000 at $50k, medicare levy takes that money right back out of your pocket and then a little extra to be sure.

      If you’ve carefully salary sacrificed into super and made deductible donations, having your boss come along and screw that up then say “show me how grateful you are” can end very badly for everyone involved.

  4. ChrisB says:

    Money going to “chosen causes” and money going to “red tape, expenses and staff salaries” are exactly the same thing. The only exception is for charities that are run exclusively by volunteers and have every cent of their costs – computers, printers, ink, paper, insurance, compliance, office space – paid for by the Magic Money Fairy. I’m not aware of any such charities.

    Let’s look at Charity A and Charity B more closely. Let’s say both exist to provide medical equipment for sick kids.
    Charity A spends 25% of money donated on overheads. It goes towards IT costs and salaries for two part-timers, working from home. The staff do a bit of everything – answering phones, assessing grant applications, marketing. The budget doesn’t stretch to paid advertising. Charity A attracted $200,000 in donations last year, and spent $150,000 on equipment for sick kids. The average grant was $5000, and the charity helped 30 kids.
    Charity B spends 60% of money donated on overheads. It goes towards rent, salaries for 10 full-time staff, IT, and paid advertising. The staff
    includes specialists in marketing, fundraising, grant assessments, and outcomes assessments. Charity B attracted $2 million in donations last year, and spent $800,000 on equipment for sick kids. The average grant was $5000, and the charity helped 160 kids.
    Overhead ratios are a nonsensical way of comparing one charity to another.
    Imagine lining up all the businesses in Australia to determine which was the most… anything. You could line them up in order of profit (interesting, yes), but that would tell you zilch about the nature of their business. For charities and other not-for-profits, the question you should be asking is not “How much of my dollar goes to the cause?” but “What outcomes am I buying with this dollar?” Efficiency is only one part of the picture (the least interesting part, in fact).
    Effectiveness is the key. That’s difficult to measure, so you need to be smart about how you go about it. Measuring efficiency because it seems easy (it’s not anyway) is a cop-out that helps nobody with anything.

    • ChrisB
      Interesting .
      In the arts-cultural sector there was, between around 1990 and 2012 a big increase in the total number of DGR status cultural orgs. Most of them are like your Charity A (or smaller) except; their cost ratios are often higher, their missions are often similar and there can be several of them all seeking support, in just one town.

  5. Heteronym No. 7 says:

    I worked as a door-to-door collector for a charity for a short and depressing period several years ago. Like the vast majority of people doing that sort of work I was on the dole and absolutely desperate for work of any kind. And you pretty much have to be desperate to do door-to-door. I must say I was amused by your comment about “item #43 in their training”. Training for these sort of jobs usually involves an hour or two spent around a table with your fellow desperates being given your bags and maps and paraphernalia and being harangued by some boorish slob about the necessity of hitting every single house. You’re also told the targets you’re expected to attain and are left in no doubt at all as to what’s going to happen if you don’t attain them. The kind of businesses that run these money-collecting efforts haven’t the slightest interest in leaving material for you to consider – their only interest is squeezing every cent out of you that they can.

    You say “they seem carefully trained not to understand it”. It’s not so much that. They can’t really afford to understand it; if they don’t meet their target they’ll be sacked and it’s back to Centrelink. Hence the degrading grubbing after every cent.

    • What was the pay like?

      • Heteronym No. 7 says:

        This was about 13 years ago. The base rate was something like $12 per hour with a tiny commission on top. The base rate isn’t enough to live on really, so you need that commission. Another thing that contributes to the kind of single-minded focus that very understandably puts so many people off.

      • Moz of Yarramulla says:

        My limited experience when I was hanging round Greenpeace was that their fundraisers got paid reasonably well but it was effectively all on a commission basis. They got a guaranteed base rate, but if they didn’t make that back at the commission rate they were dumped very quickly (sometimes during their first day).

        If you’re a backpacker with an engaging manner and no scruples though, it can pay. That commission really builds up quickly. This is why I always donate directly, never through any kind of fundraising organisation (or division, for GP).

        Here’s an example from the UK:

        weekly bonus based on the number of sign ups, starting at 9 supporters. For example 9 Supporters= £50, 10 =£100 and so on!

        That’s for donations as low as £3/month … overhead as high as 3 months donations. I have heard that if you signed someone at the higher levels the bonus can be significant.

    • Nicholas Gruen says:

      Thanks H No. 7,

      When I wrote that thing about training I thought it might be wrong. I was really beating about the bush. As it happens one of the things that really irks me is people’s unpreparedness to ‘go meta’ – that is to understand that someone may not be addressing themselves precisely to the question they’re asking (Will you give me some money? Will you go into one of the routines my marketing routine envisages?). But is critiquing the situation itself.

      It’s an old sales trick never to ‘go there’ always to default back to the basic sales questions. I concede that in this as in so many cases, this may well not need to be trained into people.

      • Heteronym No. 7 says:

        The organisation I was working for were not contracting their collecting out to another commercial entity – they were running through their own fund-raising arm. However, they had absolutely no interest whatsoever in ‘going meta’ as you put it – they were totally focused on making the dollars ‘tick over’ to the exclusion of all else. That this attitude might exasperate potential donors mightily seemed not to have entered into their calculation.

        Some years before that I worked for an organisation that was collecting money for the Save The Children Fund – this time via out-bound phone calls. Lying to people on the phone and attempting to manipulate them in the grossest way possible was not merely permissible, but actively encouraged. I lasted two days.

        • Nicholas Gruen says:

          Thanks H No. 7,

          Here’s some past correspondence of mine.

          “Dear MSF,

          I was just rung by one of your operators telling me that my credit card was no longer functioning. In order to get this sorted I asked her to send me an email.

          She said that your policy was not to send emails with sensitive information in them. I told her that I consented to her doing so and I didn’t want to be e-mailed sensitive information. All I was asking for was an email reminding me to fix this up – I am out of my base at present.

          She reiterated your policy and then said it was for my own good. When I said that policies imposed on me were not for my own good she hung up on me.

          I’m infuriated by this managerial high-handedness to a donor and don’t want to give you any more money.

          I hope you can identify who it was who rang me and train them in better phone manners.

          Regards,

          Nicholas Gruen

  6. Chris Lloyd says:

    My position is that I never, ever give to door knockers or telephoners or basically anybody who is being paid to raise money. Because, a % of the money you give goes to the person at the door and a larger % to the marketing company. We all need to resolve this and, more important, convey to the charities that they will not get a single dollar off us that way. They are free to send me an email link to their website to explain the work that they do, but that it about all the marketing I will tolerate.

  7. Paul Frijters says:

    the only door-to-door people I give to are neighbours or their kids coming to ask for money for something (school fund drives, heart foundations, that sort of thing). And they give something to my kids when their school sends them round. I see this as an investment in the local community, not about the particular charity itself. Otherwise, I choose my own charities.

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