Thursday, July 12, 2007

Chuggers and fundraising on the internet

A version of this piece was published in Marketing in 2007

I used to work in the heart of adland, Soho, and it was a constant challenge to walk down Carnaby Street without being accosted by a camera crew gathering vox pops.  People who worked around there developed natural defence mechanisms – staring at the ground, trying to look really late – to avoid their clutches, leaving it to the Nordic backpackers to get nobbled.  Just a few days experience was all it took, and you could breeze past them with an “I’m incredibly important/late/psychotic” look, the body language equivalent of “shields to maximum”.

Now I work in Victoria, home to the chugger.  These guys are much tougher.  Trained in clipboard concealment techniques and come-hither smiling, they’re the ninjas of the street hustle, and they take no prisoners with their cheery greetings.

But not content with being assaulted by these breezy budget Lord Levys, we are starting to adopt their techniques for ourselves.

Hardly a day goes by without some colleague, friend or acquaintance threatening to climb Kilimanjaro, run somewhere or give something up in the name of charidee.  But in times past they’d have to flog round the office begging for signatures, abasing themselves in front of potential sponsors and generally nicing up to everyone.  And after subjecting themselves to whatever trial they’d selected, they’d have to repeat the process, chasing up reluctant donors to dust off their wallets.

All of which meant that your generosity of spirit was rarely exercised by these approaches.

But all that’s changed with the application of digital technology.

For some time now, email has enabled sponsorship nets to be cast much more widely.  One email to the whole department or even company, and you’ve hit your sponsorship target.  Dozens or even hundreds now know both how fit and how benevolent you are, and signups are easy. 

But getting them to pay was still a problem, and managing the logistics of acquiring, collecting and chasing sponsors was a burden that was as one marathon runner I know put it “almost as much arseache as the run itself”.

So websites like provide infrastructure to deal with all these logistics.  All the user has to do is follow the easy steps to register their event and designate their charity, and the site does the rest for them.  The site handles credit card transactions, reclaims the tax on donations and even sends out a thank-you note, leaving the contestant to focus on treating their blisters.

The consequence was a further surge in sponsorship requests.  I’m now running at about one a day (amazingly just as I typed that, another came in, so make that two).

And it hasn’t stopped there.  The dizzying growth of Facebook over the past few months has added further fuel to the fire, adding yet another channel by which we can be mugged for charity.  Now we’re approached not just by Tracy in finance (for it was her just a moment ago), but by our friends as well.   Frugging (I just made this term up), the practice of charity mugging your friends through social networks, is set to be the next wave to sweep through Facebook, and it’ll only get worse once someone writes an application for the site to integrate donation into your network.

The tactic we’ve all adopted, of ignoring mass sponsorship emails in the hope that their volume grants us anonymity, is going to be crushed without mercy, and our parsimony exposed to the rest of the online world as all can see our profile.

Ultimately, the only comfort is that the people it’s going to hit hardest are those who maintain multiple online personalities.  In order to maintain face with their various communities, they may be forced to give many times over.  Perhaps someone will launch a charity for them.

In the meantime, I’m going to start smiling at chuggers.  I realise this might confuse them, but at least they’re less persistent than my friends.