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The charity muggers will be decimated, but not before worse revelations

1920s chuggers plotting their tactics before blighting the streets of London

 By Simon Davies

The streets of London can be daunting – a cacophony of hawkers, opportunists, confidence tricksters, crack-heads, wandering minstrels, barrow-boys, buskers and beggars. The locals however are quickly learning to be especially wary of the latest public nuisance: professional charity collectors.

Sometimes it’s impossible to walk thirty feet without being accosted by this jovial army of fresh-faced kids who in their thousands trawl the urban landscape for charity contributions. They are tasked to lurk around key pedestrian bottlenecks across the city, leaping out (often literally) at anyone who isn’t conspicuously carrying a firearm.

Sometimes it’s impossible to walk thirty feet without being accosted by this jovial army of fresh-faced kids who in their thousands trawl the urban landscape for charity contributions.

These “chuggers” (short for “charity muggers”) are trained to catch the target off-guard with a little dance or a funny line. Their unwritten motto is “make ’em laugh and you’re half way to their wallet”.

I’ve had to endure these little dances and quirky lines as many as thirty times in a day, greeting each with a well-rehearsed fob-off. I continuously support worthy causes, but like millions of others in crowded cities I’m becoming weary of being harangued and stalked every time I venture out of the house.

I’m not alone. British newspapers are increasingly overcoming the PC barrier of previous years and are reflecting a similar air of exasperation with this lot.

Last week the Herts Advertiser declared: “When the Herts Ad relocated to its new city centre home in March, all of the editorial team were delighted… But there has been one blight on our lunchtimes, one we know our readers share, and that is the presence of the chuggers.”

The Yorkshire Evening Post went further, eloquently observing: “the city centre’s streets are so packed with clipboard wielding youths eager to get your money that walking to get a sandwich of a lunchtime feels like some kind of human assault course”.

Out west, “This is Bristol” fumed “I’m sick of running the gauntlet and having to explain myself and apologise to a never-ending series of artificially-friendly chuggers blocking my path… following you down the street, the fake affection, the emotional blackmail and the downright aggression of it all.”

I’ll say what so many others are saying: the charity collection business is fast becoming a menace that requires swift action. I know the UK Information Commissioner’s Office is fond of reminding us there is no privacy in a public place, but surely one should enjoy the right to be let alone. After all, that’s the basis of human dignity.

“Oh you mean bastard!” you might exclaim. “Look at their optimistic young faces. It’s so lovely to see young people working for the African Caribbean Leukaemia Trust.”

OK, let’s look at the facts. For starters they aren’t working for the African Caribbean Leukaemia Trust or the Battersea Dog’s Home or even Amnesty International. Just because they’re wearing a t-shirt that says “African Caribbean Leukaemia Trust” doesn’t mean they’ve ever even met an African Caribbean person, let alone one with Leukaemia. Yesterday they were collecting for the Soil Association.

Just because they’re wearing a t-shirt that says “African Caribbean Leukaemia Trust” doesn’t mean they’ve ever even met an African Caribbean person, let alone one with Leukaemia. Yesterday they were collecting for the Soil Association

No, odds are that in Britain – as in so many other countries – you’ll be dealing with a paid collector employed by one of the 26 profit-making fundraising companies that are members of the Public Fundraising Regulatory Association (PFRA). The African Caribbean Leukaemia Trust is one of over a hundred charities that pay dues to be user-members of PFRA. The chuggers work pre-defined “prospecting sites” and are paid an hourly rate supplemented by a complex bonus formula based on a bounty per successful sign-up.

These companies are highly structured, with a focus on client relationship management, account management and up-selling to clients. Their collectors aren’t interested in one-off cash donations; they’re aiming for a signed bank mandate for a direct debit – that’s what funds these middleman operators. So put your coins away.

The training manuals (extracts in the right hand column) provide predictable reading. Classic learning cycle awareness coupled with customer response management techniques are standard for many face-to-face sellers. The chuggers are provided with decision trees and checklists to figure out what sort of payment plan is most suitable for the target. And, of course, they are fully trained in techniques for client stopping and rapport-building techniques.

To give credit where it’s due the PFRA appears to try its best to maintain and enforce a code of ethics but that doesn’t make their collectors any less of a nuisance. After all, private investigators have a code of ethics and so do bailiffs. And as the above newspaper comments establish, the code is broken routinely.

Even with a training emphasis on good conduct there have been many recent instances where chuggers have breached the code of practice and taken matters into their own hands to reach targets. A recent undercover investigation by the Sunday Telegraph revealed significant breaches of the code and sparked a crisis meeting to examine whether the chugger industry should be eliminated.

The chugger controversy is quite naturally focused on their street activities, where they are visible. But what of the bigger and more invisible “door step” operations where these aggressive tacticians corner householders in the seclusion of their own territory. Nearly 240,000 people became signed-up “donor recruits” on the street last year, but over 625,000 were recruited on doorsteps. We have yet to hear the tales of transgression from that population.

The question I ask is how many more of these charity companies can the human race tolerate before ordinary hard-working members of the public become fatigued or even violent? Surely it is in the best interests of the charities themselves to ask whether their long-term viability will be harmed.