Islington’s chuggers: have we had enough?

Image by Garry Knight

By Olivia Goldhill and Charlotte Henley: It’s the sight that fills any person living or working in Islington with dread.

Step out of any busy tube station in the borough and you cannot escape them – smiling young people in brightly-coloured tabards emblazoned with a charity logo asking you that dreaded question: “Excuse me, have you got a minute?”

“Chuggers” – an elision of the phrase “charity muggers” used to describe those employed to sign up long-term charity donors on the street – have become a permanent fixture of the high street, turning chugger-dodging into a national sport.

But is it right that people should have to put up with this, with what many people see as a form of harassment? After initially making moves to enforce an outright ban on chuggers, Islington council are now looking simply to limit the presence of these fundraisers on our streets, following the example of councils such as Burnley, which last week imposed restrictions on face-to-face fundraisers that mean they are only allowed to work on the streets two days a week.

But is this enough? Residents and office workers in Old Street and Angel – two of the six spots where the council had initially considered making chugging illegal – seemed to be fed up altogether.

“I avoid them at all costs – I think they should outlaw them,” said Luke Amundson, a 26-year-old sales consultant from Angel. “If I was actually interested in the cause I would reach out to them, and I would not do it in that way. [They] can be very upfront. They can be rude if you don’t want to talk to them.”

Tamalyn Blackman, a 35-year-old finance manager from Ilford said: “It’s horrible – they target you when you’re in shopping centres with your family and you’re swerving to avoid them. They tend to all be in the same place so you feel really targeted. I never really trust where the money is going.”

A BBC Newsnight investigation in 2010 revealed that charities pay tens of millions of pounds every year to subcontracted firms who employ face-to-face fundraisers. The programme showed that some companies pay over £100 for every person who signs up – meaning that for the average donor, whose donations would reach £90 a year, it would take over a year for their money to actually reach the charity. About half of those who sign up after being “chugged” will stop giving in the first year.

Despite this, many charities maintain that face-to-face fundraising is the most cost-effective way of obtaining donations. Those who do stay after the first year will often remain long term supporters. The Public Fundraising Regulatory Association (PFRA), which self-regulates all direct debit face-to-face fundraising, estimates that this type of fundraising is responsible for around £130 million of donations every year.

Ian Macquillan, head of communications at the PFRA said: “If [face-to-face fundraising] wasn’t working they wouldn’t do it. There is already regulation in our seven spots in Islington. What we have with Burnley is the agreement we’re looking to have with Islington. Everything that Islington Council wants to achieve can be achieved.”

A spokesperson for the NSPCC said:  “Like all forms of donor recruitment, face-to-face fundraising costs money to run. We are committed to building long term relationships with our supporters; many will go on to support us for many years to come. To date, donors recruited via face-to-face have contributed over £31m to the NSPCC – money that is vitally needed to enable us to help many thousands of children every year.”

Susan Buchanan, Liberal Democrat councillor for St. Mary’s ward, was the first to raise the problem regarding chuggers.

“We definitely needed to do something, but I thought it was a bit extreme to ban it outright without taking the charities into consideration,” she said. “I think there should be pressure put on the charities to control the chuggers. Not everybody objects to them but a lot of people do. They are very persistent.”

Paul Smith, Islington council executive member for the environment said: “It’s a sensible behaviour issue. You don’t want to come out of Highbury station and have someone blocking your way. What we’re looking to do is have a rational discussion with some of the companies. If that doesn’t work out we will have to see what the next step is.”

Not everybody is against the chugging brigade however. One woman in Angel, Katherine Brennen, was happy to defend the work they do: “I think it’s very unfair. They’re very unobtrusive, if you say you haven’t time then they leave you alone.  I think they’re important for charities – especially at the moment when they’re underfunded in a recession. I think it’s a bit mean. It’s a sign of the way society’s going where we’re cutting back on the public sector and looking after each other. It’s very sad.”

Ms Brennen also talked about the added benefits that this type of fundraising can bring. “I think chuggers are a good way to raise awareness about charities that you wouldn’t normally know about. I gave to the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds for a year after I spoke to a chugger and although I’m not normally that interested in birds I got all these brochures for a year, which was really interesting.”

Chugging critics have said that chuggers often pick on vulnerable members of society, particularly old people. However Morris Korner, who is 82, said he did not feel hugely harassed by chuggers. He said: “They are a nuisance but it depends what it’s for. I’m not a fan of those buckets with no lids but if it’s a genuine charity like the British Red Cross or RSPCA then I think it’s ok.”

And what about the chuggers themselves? One fundraiser working for WWF in Angel, who asked to remain anonymous, thought to impose a ban would be over the top: “Why would they ban us? I understand it’s a bit in your face but it’s just a conversation.  I can’t go further than three steps so it’s not like I can go after people.”

Love them or hate them, it looks like we won’t be seeing the back of the chuggers for a while yet. For all the annoyance they may bring, chuggers are there to try and raise money for a good cause. Perhaps it would do us no harm to remind ourselves of that next time we’re swerving one on the street.