Scourge of ‘chuggers’ in St Albans city centre

WHEN the Herts Ad relocated to its new city centre home in March, all of the editorial team were delighted. We had been holed away in an industrial estate on the edge of town where lunchtime options were limited, so the move into the Town Hall Chambers on Market Place was greeted with open arms.

But there has been one blight on our lunchtimes, one we know our readers share, and that is the presence of the chuggers.

The chuggers - a term derived from the phrase charity muggers - are officially known as “face to face fundraisers”. But ask around and many will agree that they have made a trip down St Peters Street during the week a bit like running the gauntlet.

Perhaps you’ve come across these individuals, usually located between Boots and BHS, wearing charity bibs, holding a clipboard and trying to coax you with their “friendly” manner into setting up a direct debit/make a donation?

And maybe you too have taken umbrage with their over-familiar approach, their persistent badgering and insinuations you’re morally bankrupt for failing to hand over your bank details?

Whether it is comments about my appearance or advice about “smiling” because “it might never happen”, their presence in St Albans is starting to grate. And I’m not alone.

Look on the internet and this is an issue making national news: shops in Brighton recently called for help reducing chuggers because it was detrimental to business; a review commissioned by the Government has called for more power to control face to face fundraisers; and a report last month indicated some companies would be investigated after it was found their collectors were breaching guidelines.

Most Read

On their website, the Public Fundraising Regulatory Authority claim it costs a charity between �80 to �160 to recruit a new donor through this method of fundraising. A donation of �10 a month would take between eight to 16 months for the charity to break even with the agency employed.

The tactics employed vary but all who have spoken to us say their encounters haven’t encouraged them to donate.

One man told me how he was on his phone when a chugger approached him and the ‘fundraiser’ didn’t relent even when he indicated he was mid-conversation. Instead, the chugger followed him repeatedly trying to draw him off the phone.

Another woman recalled how a man, wearing a charity bib, held out his arms as though to prevent her passage, jumping sideways every time she changed direction.

It is a shame because charities are struggling and we’re certainly not anti charity. I donate regularly, fundraise for the hospice which cared for my mum and have spent many a rainy afternoon with a charity bucket seeking small change from the public.

And not only do chuggers taint genuine charity collections they also affect businesses. Many readers tell us they will avoid areas where the chuggers are if they can help it.

The man telling me to enjoy my nice cosy life was wearing a British Red Cross bib but was working for Together Fundraising – an agency.

The charity was appalled when I shared my experience with them. A spokesperson said they took complaints like this “very seriously” and promised to investigate the issue as a matter of urgency with Together Fundraising.

She added: “We would encourage anyone with a complaint against those representing the Red Cross to contact our Supporter Care line on 0844 87 100 87.”

Clive Hanks, director of Together Fundraising, said he would happily look into specific complaints about fundraisers. He explained that any breach of the company’s expected service levels would be investigated thoroughly.

He said: “The professionalism, courtesy and integrity of our staff is very important to us and to the charity clients we represent.

“To date our fundraisers’ visits to St. Albans have been extremely positive and worthwhile. Our 19 visits since 2010 have resulted in tens of thousands of pounds of pledged support for a wide range of fantastic causes.”

He said there had been no complaints to the district council about the company’s fundraisers.

But that is disputed by Mike Lovelady, head of legal at the council, who said they had received two or three complaints in the last year.

Mr Lovelady explained that “direct debit fundraisers” didn’t require a licence and that the council had no legal powers to prevent the activity.

He said: “We have a voluntary code of practice that we ask Direct Debit Fundraisers to follow. This entails advising us of proposed visits and not visiting on market days, during December and the Christmas period, and when other fundraisers are operating. We also ask them to limit their activity to no more than one visit to the city per month.

“Naturally the Council does not condone poor behaviour by any visiting fundraisers. If a member of the public has a complaint about the behaviour of a team or a specific individual on the street, they should report it to our Charitable Collections team via 01727 819254.”

Cllr Beric Read, portfolio holder for community engagement, said the council would be writing to the relevant minister to support any guidelines that would change the way the fundraisers operated.

Helena Horton, an 18-year-old student from Harpenden, went under cover for the Herts Ad and describes below her experience with a chugger:

“I was approached by a man standing by the cash point in The Maltings. There were a lot of people around so I asked why he’d come up to me and he told me it was because I looked the most “approachable”. I think it may have something to do with the fact I was the youngest woman around.

“I said I couldn’t sign up to anything but he then went on to try and make me feel uncomfortable by asking me about my life. He compared my situation with a homeless girl my age and asked if I could still refuse to donate after what he’d told me about her.

“I felt guilty but I still resisted. The man was very chatty and moved quite close to me, which made me feel uneasy. I did ask who he worked for and he showed me his ID and was quite upfront about the fact he was paid to do it; he wasn’t a volunteer for the charity.”

Elizabeth Quinlan, a local fashion blogger, said: “They joke to get me interested, so I don’t take them seriously. I prefer to donate clothes directly to the charity rather than give them my bank details.”

Ellie Anderson, who works in the city, said: “They pursue me too much when I say no. If I wanted to donate I would do it directly. I was once followed all the way from Tesco to the bank!”

Seema Begum, a sixth form student, said: “It annoys me that they make me feel guilty and it’s intimidating when they work in big groups, standing on both sides of the road.”

Daniel Thoree, said: “I get approached all the time. I can’t stand it! They don’t take no for an answer and guilt trip me every time.”