Can Face to Face Continue to be the Goose that Lays the Golden Eggs?

When face to face fundraising first emerged in the late 90s, those of us working at the heart of it were overawed by its success. The fundraising sector quickly jumped on this new way to attract a  wave of committed supporters, street and door to door campaigns were rolled out from Austria to New Zealand (where I was based at the time), and by 2002 donor acquisition and return on investment levels were at an all-time high, for many non- profits. It appeared we really had found the goose that laid the golden eggs.

However, by 2005, cracks were starting to appear. Competition for street and door to door fundraising space among non-profits was heating up, commission-based pay schemes were implemented by fast growing vendors, and the race was on to be ‘first to market’ around the world. 

Some pretty dubious practices and aggressive street fundraising were caught in the spotlight and the press wasn’t good. The UK media termed street fundraisers “chuggers” (charity muggers). The halcyon days of recruiters finding untested street corners, or rows of un-knocked doors, and signing up 5 or more new donors per day, appeared to be quickly coming to an end. In fact non-profit boards and CEO’s were already suggesting that face to face was nearing the end of its lifecycle, challenging fundraising directors to find the next cash cow.

Somewhere in the race to acquire new donors, the focus on how best to keep them was being left behind. And whilst there has been numerous papers and books written on leaky buckets, supporter journey and relationship building, lifetime value of donors, how to measure and reduce attrition, universally it appears that non-profits have struggled to come to grips with the challenge of retaining donors, recruited via face to face.

Throughout the world we still see some face to face programs, with dubious donor recruitment methodology, that are doomed to fail. If donors are given a poor experience when they first make a financial commitment, they may feel misled, they often have absolutely no idea what to expect from the non-profit once they have committed to giving, and they often remain hungry for more information because the recruiter has already moved on once they have the signed donation form.

In 2014, as part of a master degree in marketing, I conducted some research, mystery shopping face to face street recruiters in 8 different countries, speaking with recruiters who were working for a range of causes, varying from animal welfare to child protection. The purpose of the research was to prove a theory; that first interaction with potential donors was one of, if not the major contributor to 12 month donor attrition. Whilst I couldn’t prove that point of recruitment was the biggest factor in donor retention, I could draw conclusions that it played a significant role in the first 12 months of the donor lifecycle.

Interviewing 117 face to face recruiters, the most startling finding was, that over 80% of the fundraisers proactively suggested, during the recruitment conversation, that I could cancel my regular gift in the first 12 months. Over a quarter suggested that I could or should cancel within the first 3 months. Given that the breakeven point for donor recruitment often lies at around 24 months or beyond, is it any wonder that the cost of face to face fundraising is giving non-profits serious headaches? 

Between 2010 and 2016, working as a consultant, I advised some of the world’s largest non-profits and UN agencies on how to build large scale face to face programs, and supporter journeys that would retain hard won new donors. This included helping to select and appoint face to face agencies. What struck me most during this period was the different way those vendors measured success; the range of metrics used to calculate cost and return on investment, and how the quality of their response for proposals varied. 

Every vendor appeared to have a different model, some with vastly exaggerated, expected retention rates. Whilst all vendors were geared towards bringing in donors, there was little evidence about the quality of donors and the methodology at recruitment, to ensure new donors were ‘sticky’. Choosing the right vendor, was not an easy task.

But times are changing, some non-profits and UN agencies are finding incredibly innovative ways of delivering face to face programs, many of which are audience specific and segment targeted. Far from being confined to the street or doorstep, we’ve seen a move towards fundraising in airports, hospitals, supermarkets and super stores, leveraging corporate partnerships to open space to more captive audiences. Over the past two years, the sector is paying much more attention to lifetime value metrics than single or 2-year ROIs, and supporter journey mapping appears to be much more sophisticated.

If we are serious about not only protecting face to face as a recruitment channel for years to come, but also maximizing the value of donor acquisition, then as an industry we need to find new and innovative spaces and methods for delivery. In my opinion we still have the opportunity to keep the goose laying golden eggs and not turning into turkey.

This means investing in thinking about what the experience for the potential donor looks like, not just when the recruitment form passes to the non-profit or supporter care team, but most importantly at the point of recruitment. We need to think about what questions we should be asking new supporters, what we should be saying and, just as importantly, not saying. How do we turn a ‘chugging’ experience into a positive commitment from our fresh new donors? How do we get these donors to see our non-profit as the one they won’t leave or switch their gift from?

It’s these questions and many more that we need to explore if we are to succeed in meeting the potential of modern-day face to face fundraising. At a time where talking with our supporters has never been more important, surely this is one channel that the sector must work together to protect.


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