On a sunny afternoon in 1998, my progress along a central Brighton street was interrupted in a way that ended up changing the course of my own life, as well as heralding a step change for the fundraising sector. A friendly greeting was followed by an engaging and genuine dialogue. Yes, I agreed, of course I was shocked and angry at the corporate activities that were wiping out fragile habitats and species. Yes, I too believed that urgent action was needed to stop this before it was too late. And, sure, I’d heard of Greenpeace and knew about some of the great work that they’d done fighting to protect the environment. As a result of this conversation, I happily became one of the many millions of people whose decision to become regular donors was triggered by an unplanned conversation, a meeting of minds. In fact, the experience was so positive that I also decided that this would be the path for me to carry out my vaguely formed plan of working in the NGO sector, despite my lack of relevant skills and experience.
18 years later, F2F fundraising has continued to grow into what is now the sector’s largest channel for the recruitment of regular donors. In recent years, though, it has suffered a seemingly constant barrage of criticism from the media and even endured a great deal of distaste from within our own sector. But still, by my own estimation (unscientific and rigourless, but based on an in-depth knowledge of the global F2F landscape), over 2.5 million new regular donors were recruited by F2F fundraisers last year alone. That’s millions of people who left their homes one morning with no specific intention to do anything notable, but returned in the evening having committed their ongoing resources to making the world a better place. In the time since my distant meeting with the Greenpeace street team and the subsequent start of my fundraising career, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about what it is that can make F2F work so effectively, as well as about the challenges that it faces now and how we can meet them.
Theory and practice…
At its best, an encounter with a F2F fundraiser will roughly go like this… Fundraiser and prospect will acknowledge each other as equals, people with valid opinions, values and priorities. In the conversation that follows, the fundraiser will make an honest and genuine case for regular support which, having asked any questions or discussed potential reservations, the prospect will consider carefully before making a decision with which they feel fully comfortable.
This pattern fits with several psychological theoretical frameworks that attempt to explain and predict individual behaviour. So, self-efficacy theory (Bandura, 1977), the theory of reasoned action (Fishbein, 1980) and the theory of planned behaviour (Ajzen, 1980) all resonate with the pattern described above as they attempt to explain how people might decide to take an action that has a positive effect on the world around them.
However, anyone with real-world F2F experience knows that most interactions don’t play out like this. Biel’s theory of habitual and value-guided purchase behaviour (2005), which examines the conscious and unconscious decision-making processes faced by consumers in relation to ethical purchases, can also help explain how the popularity of F2F raises challenges for its ability to create genuine dialogues. Increasingly, people bring their memories of previous conversations and experience with F2F fundraisers, which can act as a barrier to a genuine dialogue and considered decisions.
A stereotypically ‘ideal’ F2F donor stops to talk to a street fundraiser, then becomes aware that they haven’t really heard the last couple of sentences. Instead, they’ve been thinking about the bit of the conversation where, as they did to the last couple of fundraisers they spoke to, they explain that they don’t want to take on another monthly commitment. Or, worse, maybe they don’t even stop this time, after the rude way that they were spoken to last time they did. Or perhaps their mind turns back to the article in the paper last week about the questionable tactics that the undercover reporter came across in her ‘exposé’ of the sector…
In short, as F2F becomes a more mundane part of public life, the way that people respond to it is increasingly shaped by their own previous direct or indirect experience with the channel, rather than by the cause and proposition that it places before them.
A new direction
So, what can we do? How can we breathe new life into a channel that still raises hundreds of millions of dollars every year for charities across the world and has introduced millions of new donors to the rewards of giving?
One way is simply to change what we do and find new triggers to introduce meaningful dialogues. By ditching the clipboard and pitchcard, we can create the space for a new model of F2F engagement. This, for example, is what can happen when offering a virtual reality experience that transports a prospect to the field and gives her a chance to ‘meet’ the beneficiaries of a charity’s work. Not only have I seen this lead to some truly heartfelt and deeply emotional responses, but I’ve even watched people queue for 10 or 15 minutes to experience the VR. During this time, they’ve become aware of some of the relevant issues regarding the content and have considered this information carefully, since they made an active choice to receive it.
But, while there are clear signs that VR can improve F2F engagement and results, there are also less sophisticated (and less expensive) ways to create a positive disruption in the F2F experience. We know that people’s emotions are closely linked to all their senses, so engaging with these senses can help to connect a rational argument to the emotions and empathy that drive a decision to donate. F2F fundraisers have often used props such as Plumpy’Nut emergency food sachets or vaccine vials to offer prospects a tactile experience but we need to remain creative, as habit and predictability lead to the inevitable devaluation of the emotional impact.
So, whenever we can, let’s try to amaze, amuse, astonish and delight our way back into a real conversation. The future of F2F depends upon it.
This blog post is part of the IFC series. 101fundraising is proud to be the official blog partner of the International Fundraising Congress for the 5th year!
David Cravinho and Daniel McDonnell will be exploring F2F in more detail in the IFC during the Reinventing F2F – The impact of increased engagement and VR workshop session at 9am and 4pm on Thursday 20 October.