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Road to ruin; are street collections finally about to kick the bucket?

We took part in an online debate on giving for the Guardian recently and among the many interesting points raised, someone argued that the day of standing on street corners collecting for charities had passed. He proposed, quite well, that charities should focus on other methods. True, street collections have their drawbacks, not least that the vast majority of people undoubtedly walk straight past without dipping into their pockets. But even among the myriad of donation methods these days, I just can't agree that street collections have anything less than a crucial role to play.

We took part in an online debate on giving for the Guardian recently and among the many interesting points raised, someone argued that the day of standing on street corners collecting for charities had passed. He proposed, quite well, that charities should focus on other methods. True, street collections have their drawbacks, not least that the vast majority of people undoubtedly walk straight past without dipping into their pockets. But even among the myriad of donation methods these days, I just can't agree that street collections have anything less than a crucial role to play.

Working as I do for a research company, my first refuge is data and it supports street collections. Our figures, from the responses of 1000 people, show that ‘cash collections on the street’ have been most people’s preferred method of being asked for money for the last three years. Whilst 38% of people find it very annoying and 30% try to avoid it, one in three understand it is an effective way to raise money. Annoyance levels are still markedly lower than those of telephone and doorstep fundraising.
 
More importantly, of the people we asked one in three had given to street collectors in the last 3 months, a figure beaten only by charity shops. It was way ahead of more 'modern' methods such as debit card (9%) or text message (3%). The key to street collections is that they are persuasive. Call it social responsibility, British politeness or sheer pride, it is difficult to walk past someone and not hand over some spare change. Some people will always manage to resist it, but a lot of people won’t.
 
The point made in the debate was that the only benefit of street collections is maintaining a personal nature in the giving process and that this could easily be sustained through well-managed websites and social media. Again, I have to disagree. Our research shows that giving to charity increases with age. We also know from various surveys and studies that older people are less likely to use the internet. Not that young people don’t give, or older people can’t use the internet, but with your top giving market being less reachable on the internet, does it pay to focus only on online targeting methods? I don’t think so. But with street collections as a solid source of income, the exploration of other revenue streams like the internet can be supported.
 
Why can’t we have innovative ways of street fundraising? We have seen free handouts for example. I’ve been on the University RAG team myself and people seldom resisted a badge or a paper flower. I’m sure everyone reading this has seen collectors in fancy dress. What else can be done? How about street entertainers drawing the crowds over? How about activities, like ‘Beat the Goalie’ penalty shots, or throwing wet sponges at someone in stocks? Why not appeal to human emotions of competitiveness and mischievousness, rather than just generosity? Sounds crazy I know, but innovation often is.
 
The main point I am making though is that street fundraising is a staple part of charities’ income. Of course more innovative ways will always be needed. Until every single charity is awash with funds, the battle will never be won and that is most likely never going to happen. But while charities look to their websites, their social media, their text message giving, even their mobile phone networks, it is important not to abandon their trusted old friend. 
 
The crux of the matter is this. Some people will argue that today's internet generation, 'screenagers' or 'generation rent' (whatever we are called) will be tomorrow's donors and so we need to develop fundraising methods to capture this. I agree, but not at the expense of street collections because they can provide the funds to keep the charity ticking over while it looks at new methods. McDonald's has all manner of different products these days, even salads and sandwiches, but it has been selling the Big Mac since 1968, which has financially supported their expansion into more and more ways to grow its brand and profits into what they are today.
 
New ways of engaging people and maintaining their interest whilst providing radical yet cheap ways to give are of course desirable. But since no one has yet come up with the perfect plan to do this, I don't think we can even bite the hand that feeds the street collections. The idea of abandoning the bucket is just beyond the pale. 
 

Rob White

 

Are collections streets ahead? Or have they pale-d into insignificance? Leave us a comment below.

 
 

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