Excuse me, do you have a minute?

When not-for-profit organisations create challenging first impressions. An exploratory piece by Andrew Sedlak, Senior Service Designer at Future Friendly.

A cycler being stopped by a charity fund raiser on the street. — Photo courtesy of Walt Jabsco


You’re walking down the street minding your own business — maybe thinking out a problem or going over what you’ve got on for the rest of your workday — when you see a squad of young adults equipped with clipboards and iPads. The hairs on the back of your neck raise slightly. You’re now attempting to cross the most awkward footpath of your day. These not-for-profit mercenaries have commandeered the corner of the train station entrance you’re walking towards and are attacking each passerby with guerrilla tactics: warm smiles and inviting handshakes.

You try desperately to avoid eye contact and swerve through the sea of people, hoping to stay hidden in the crowd. “This time” you say to yourself, “This time, I’ll just ignore them.” Then right as you’re taking your final steps out of their sphere of influence and safely into the trenches, a brightly vested youth catches your eyes. You hear a cheery “Excuse me! Do you have a moment for charity?” and the momentum around you begins to fade. Slowly, you reach for excuses and wave them off with futile gestures. But it’s too late.

You’re being swallowed up by the gravity of not-for-profit causes.

(CAAS) Charity As A Service

If you’re unfamiliar with the idea of paid street fundraisers, a quick Google search tosses up a number of articles about the term Chuggers (or “charity muggers”) along with opinion pieces on the roles they perform for not-for-profit organisations all over the world. Many sources tackle related questions like: should fundraisers be allowed to carry out this role? Or do they actually generate loss leads for organisations? I’m not here to hash over old ground. What I’m most interested in is this:

How do paid street fundraisers make a positive impact for donors or their affiliated not-for-profit brand?

Now, connection to a brand may not be the first thing on the minds of organisations trying to make enough leads to stay sustainable, but hear me out. The practice of service design offers the opportunity to learn about all kinds of different service experiences and how people interact with them. Typically, service designers can look at things like the frontline sales experience of a cafe, or the digital service of ordering a car. So naturally when running into my third set of street fundraisers in two weeks, it got me frustrated with the repetitive nature of turning them down.

From trying to avoid fundraisers (and failing), I learned these fundamental truths about the experience as a whole:

  • Yes, I’m concerned about the issue you’re trying to inform me of
  • No, I don’t want to be constantly reminded that everything in the world is falling apart around me

Let’s be clear: I’m not ignoring the problems facing the world. I’m just trying to focus on the slice that I can have a positive influence on. And I’m also a believer that there a lot of people out there like me. (There are also probably people who could use a wake up call, but that’s a separate article.)

What’s really happening in this scenario: I’m walking into a first point of contact with a service, and the organisation providing the service is ready to help me connect to their problem of the day at full speed ahead without a seatbelt on. This type of interaction is common enough, and can be discouraging for people no matter the source. We get surprised by unexpected offers and media all the time. In most cases, if we can control anything, we do away with the surprise as quickly as possible. A pop up ad, a person handing out flyers, a video ad that auto plays somewhere from your computer: we disregard these advances of attention as much as possible, even going so far as to actively dismiss them.

If we had to graph a generic discouraging experience, it might look something like this:

An example of a discouraging experience journey with a weak starting point.

If this graph was a set of data points that mapped a person’s experience (the higher, the more engagement) you’d say this might be a confrontation over a spilled drink at the pub, or running into an ex on the street. These kinds of situations would generally have weak starts — and we may mitigate them down the line — but ultimately we don’t feel great about them. So, thinking back to those three instances of running into fundraisers, I wondered:

If charities really want us connecting with their program and their vision of helping the world, why is the first impression of their service awkward, full of dread, and leaving us with bittersweet emotions?

Looking at the graph above, it’s pretty apparent that the beginning of this experience could use some work. Instances of being approached for donations are often spoken about, but for the sake of this article, don’t take my word for it either. Here are a few people who were willing to share their thoughts about a similar experience:

“I feel like I don’t have time to talk to them, like it’s always inconvenient, like I’m ashamed that I should but I can’t right now.” — Emma S.
“It feels manipulative, like they have a lot of tricks to stop you. I don’t want to be caught in their trap. If I don’t have a good enough excuse not to talk to them, then they’ve won. And I don’t want that conversation to feel like a confrontation.” — Anonymous
“I have a lot of anger about the false representation of [those] people harassing you on the street. That’s why I don’t even acknowledge them.” — Sasha A.

I wasn’t there to share these experiences, so some trust is in order here to validate their perceptions. But with enough people confirming a less-than-pleasant experience from paid charity fundraisers, I have to wonder: how do organisations recover from these experiences?

Public Perception

The truth is, sometimes they don’t. As the author Tim Burrowes explains in his opinion piece on the damage street fundraisers do to brands: “Until I started to write this piece, I never consciously considered it: but the thought occurs that my primary association with the logo now is a bunch of pests on the street asking me for money, not the people interceding on behalf of a campaigner imprisoned by a repressive regime.”

Having a soured experience early on in any service can leave prospective donors with a negative impression of the brand. Part of the problem is that not-for-profit organisations rely on contracted fundraisers as a vital source of revenue. So making a quick fix that everyone can agree on is not always as simple as “getting rid of the chuggers” as the public may choose.

The simple act of removing them from the equation could negatively affect the overall service experience, or even worse, make it impossible for the organisations to operate sustainably down the line.

So — realistically — what can be done?

So is all hope lost? Not yet.

An example of how charities may approach this through better designed services can actually be quite simple once we deprioritise the quotas. If we put aside the desperation to keep money coming in, we can ask more accurate questions about what people actually need:

The question now becomes: how might we engage with potential donors in a way that connects them to a deeper sense of purpose with our organisation?

Connecting to impact and purpose

Even large organisations such as Greenpeace can’t escape the issue of weak starts that street fundraisers have been causing. In 2010, this culminated in losing donors brought in through fund raising (before they paid off their cost of acquisition), exposing a serious flaw in this model. At the time, the organisation did not have an alternative to the model they had become so dependant on. They worked together with the design team at Circul8 to develop a marketing campaign that would test the status quo.

The proposed solution was to get people to form a bond with endangered animals to associate an emotional connection with their reasons for donating. Let’s face it, no one wants to see entire species and habitats wiped ou,t but they also need to understand reasons to take action that go deeper than “because our organisation says so.” So Circul8 and Greenpeace designed a social media campaign to “find your spirit animal.” People answered a number of questions to find out what animal they connect to most and then learn about what their new spirit animal has to go through on a daily basis.

The results?

Potential donors connected to the campaign — with high levels of engagement. Six months later, Greenpeace had significantly increased their donor database, and brought acquisition costs down by 65% (approximately 400% lower than face-to-face fundraising). Retention for the first 12-month period also increased, and the program was launched internationally.

Moving from a poor experience to a strong start

Changing the way they engaged with potential donors upfront, Greenpeace created a strong starting experience that set up expectations and greater likelihood that potential donors would continue making contributions past the six month mark. By understanding what people value most, we find the opportunities to strengthen their ability to be an active participant in helping to achieve the organisation’s goal.

Even more so, working with a combination of current donors, prospective donors, and the organisation, some very interesting ideas can begin to emerge that help to achieve success for everyone involved. Using methods like co-creation can further identify solutions that meet the needs of all involved, while also understanding the organisation’s needs to stay relevant, profitable, and sustainable.

So what does this really look like?

Raising experience from the first point of contact may heighten people’s perception of the rest of their journey. Even in the relatively less-desirable areas, the dips in experience are perceived as less harmful.

Can organisations do this on their own?

Of course organisations can make changes that create lasting impact. But if their entire revenue model is centred around making the best of a loss-lead mentality (let’s review: that means outsourcing the introductory process to a group of people who are really only invested in it for the commission -or- peppering their websites and email subscribers with “Donate Now” banners) then they’re not thinking in the most customer-centric way.

Organisations hoping to get enough donors from street fundraising acquisitions — and hoping those donors stay on long enough to reward them down the line — are putting a lot of faith in an unappealing model: something that hasn’t proven to be sustainable or effective for organisations as a whole so far. And for some of the most inspiring not-for-profit organisations, we don’t want to view the brightly coloured shirts as a repellant, but rather a beacon of change and success.

Why this matters at Future Friendly

Working at Future Friendly, we’re always thinking about service experience — both as specific moments in time, and more holistically — connecting the dots between people and organisations. We work with organisations to empower their employees to create value for everyone involved, ensuring that all parties’ experiences are worthwhile and fulfilling.

It’s important to consider how not-for-profit organisations can gain and retain donors. But by working with everyone who is connected to a service experience, we can consider everyone involved in the process. And as an impact-scaling agency, it’s our job to support communities as they design better outcomes.

If you’re a commercial or not-for-profit organisation and want to chat more about this, let us know. Come say hello@wearefuturefriendly.com.