life as a ‘chugger’ – owing money to your boss

6 10 2011

An ex-fundraiser recounts life working in the charity sector, where employers’ ‘ethical credentials’ are far from the reality

As a bête noire of the mainstream media, right-wing and liberal alike, street and door-to-door charity fundraising is something that has had a lot of column inches and broadcast time devoted to it over the last few years. Unsurprisingly this coverage has almost exclusively sought to lump together workers with their employers and paint a picture of one homogenous group of ‘chuggers’ (charity muggers) collectively scamming charities and donors out of money.

With the vast majority of fundraisers aged between 18 and 30 and either without qualifications, or working the job to pay for studying, the image the media have sought to create neatly fits into both the on-going campaign of media hate directed at working-class youth, and populist rhetoric that portrays bankers, public sector workers and benefit claimants as somehow collectively conspiring to rob the rest of the country.

Pyramid schemes and ‘emotional contracts’

Of course, the industry is riddled with swindlers but it is the workers, not the charities they are contracted to, who are being exploited. The workforce is divided between those without contracts put  to work as bogus-self employees, on commission, for direct marketing companies, and those working either directly for a charity, or for a fundraising company, who are paid a low basic wage and bonuses. In terms of the first group the most notorious company is called the Cobra Group, who set up their offices under various names (Platinum Force being their incarnation on Merseyside) and whose training amounts to cynical brainwashing that largely focuses on the potential amounts of money the young people who work for them could make.

The payment of their workforce is done through a bond scheme – which means they commission earned for each person signed up to make regular donations is split in half, one half being paid to the fundraiser – the other being retained by the company for six months. If in that period the donor cancels their subscription, the fundraiser not only loses their bond – but then owes the office their original payment back as well. All of this is made legal by the bogus self-employment I referred to before –and means that a large section of people working for Cobra or similar companies leave their jobs supposedly owing their employers money. To all intents and purposes, Cobra and organisations like it are pyramid schemes which manage to exist in between legal loopholes, and have done very well out of a period where the number of young people denied access to training, education and employment continues to rise.

During the time I worked as a fundraiser it was with the company ‘Home Fundraising’ (HF) which is in the latter of the two groups I described. A large emphasis is put on the company being ‘not for profit’ – which simply diverts attention from the large amounts being ploughed into the directors’ wages. Whereas the direct marketing companies work on the basis of blinding young workers with drivel about what they could potentially earn, fundraising companies and charities rely  on what amounts to emotional blackmail when it comes to exploiting their workforce. This is thinly veiled by the term ‘emotional contract’ – which managers seek to forge with the team leaders and fundraisers, who are in turn trained to do the same with potential donors. What this term means in reality is that everything to do with the job comes second to the demands of the charity. This relies on getting employees to view the charity not as their employer, but as a cause greater than them, which should come before their rights or needs as a worker.

We’re ‘ethical’, don’t you know…

Companies like Home Fundraising have benefited greatly from the naked expolitation of ‘nasty’ organisations like the Cobra Group, able to position themselves as the ‘nice’ alternative. When I got a job at Home Fundraising, I was bombarded with assurances of how ‘ethical’ the company was, reinforced with jibberish about how the director was a stockbroker who had an epiphany and became a Buddhist monk, before going on to set up the company – which obviously meant he would a really fantastic employer, with all our best interests at heart. Throughout the training there were many references to the unscrupulous behaviour of Cobra, and how much better HF was because they paid wages and you were a ‘proper employee’. The reality is that the company hold the fact that they pay wages against the workers, and use every means they can to reduce them.

For example, from the Liverpool office we would often travel as far a field as Blackpool or Telford for a day’s work and, rather than us being given de facto travel payment, if we didn’t hit our targets, we didn’t get paid for our travelling time – and even when we did, it would only cover us for a maximum of one and a half hours (Travel from Liverpool to Telford is around two hours in each direction) The result would often be that we’d leave our office at 1pm, and would return home at 11pm, having earned only £35.

Whenever challenged on issues relating to travel pay, the company’s response would be ‘well, you are paid bonuses for your sign-up rate, therefore work harder and increase your pay’.  The bonus scheme works out that if over a five day period you sign up more than seven people for £8.67 per month, every sign up after that point is worth £30, supplementing the £7 per hour you are paid for five hours a day. Whilst this might sound decent on the face of it, the reality is that the vast majority of the workforce do not regularly hit their bonuses, and so when you include travelling time it works out that the company are paying less than minimum wage – and much like Cobra Group, are able to do so legally.

Bullying, negligence and harassment

A favourite line for the company to whip out if you were lagging on targets would be ‘you’re stealing money from charities’  and is perhaps the best reflection of the point I made about wage payments being held against the workforce. This reasoning would often be used in disciplinary hearings, which were handed out with no consistency, and a lot of of the time seemed to be based on personal dislikings taken by management. This comes on top of the fact that the company refuse to give sick-pay, and whilst insisting that it is a ‘proper job’ employ staff under the same conditions as the worst of precarious employers. Notable instances here included staff not being given paid breaks, not being given paid time off when injured in the course of work (I was badly bitten by a dog whilst working, and was told to take two days off out of my holiday leave) and most commonly, being paid incorrectly or not at all. The latter would happen to a significant number of staff on an almost weekly basis.

Things reached a particularly low point in April of this year, when a number of teams – including one that I was working on – realised that they were being followed in cars by unknown people who were photographing them. When questioned, our managers repeatedly assured us that they were nothing to do with the company, and when the stalkers were confronted, they either drove off or denied that they were following us. After two weeks of this going on, the company finally sent somebody from head office who admitted that they had hired what they described as ‘mystery shoppers’ to follow teams on site. It was clear that whether or not these people had been hired from a ‘mystery shopper’ agency, their function was as private investigators – gathering ‘evidence’ and intimidating us rather than assessing the quality of our work at the door.

Far from the media perception, fundraising is very difficult underpaid work – and presently in Liverpool – and I imagine, other large cities, it is one of the few options for young workers – who then face the difficulties of organising in a casualised work place – often against a very union hostile management. Both Home Fundraising and Cobra Group have offices in most large UK cities, alongside other organisations such as P and D Marketing and JMS. Its very likely that most readers of this will have a marketing agency or fundraising company based in there area – or possibly know somebody who works as a fundraisers – I’m sure any support you can give to fundraisers trying to organise in their workplaces will be very much appreciated.

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21 responses

10 10 2011
Patrick Smith

“I’m sure any support you can give to fundraisers trying to organise in their workplaces will be very much appreciated.”

What unions are involved in organising these people, are there any campaigns currently in operation or would we have to help organise a campaign from the ground up?

11 10 2011
Mike Smith

to be honest i have very little simpathy with chuggers as i’m harassed on almost a daily basis, but if you are also exploited just as many vulnerable people are on the street who are subjected to the hard sell, why don’t you complain to your local MP. This whole shady business is not adequately regulated and should be.

11 10 2011
Mike Smith

Interestingly, i’ve just viewed a few chugger jobs on-line and they pay more than £9 per hour not including bonuses. I thought you said that chugging is notoriously underpaid?

11 10 2011
Mike Smith

Sorry for a third posting, but I can’t help thinking what the PFRA are doing with regards to regulating this behaviour from fundraising third parties? Are you able to shed some light on this? The PFRA seems more like a trade association than a proper regulator standing up only for (and being paid by) the needs and requirements of the charity and the fundraising companies and not the workforce. Am I right in assuming this?

11 10 2011
Star Brooks

I thought this article was a good insight into how these organisations work and reconfirmed my perceptions. It was well written and the author is obviously wasted, however perhaps he might consider getting re ‘employed’ and undertaking some undercover filming to show up the big cheeses for who they really are.

Unfortunately this did emphasise that chuggers are a homogenous group due to being stupid enough to buy whatever rubbish is perpetuated towards them from the big cheeses who are actually the people leaching off charities.

9 01 2012
dusty bin

Unless the company is run on a co-operative basis there’s always going to be an element of exploitation involved. Cobra and Arcadia are scumbags who rip off charities, employees and donors. Home Fundraising isn’t perfect but I’d rather be earning a basic wage with bonus payments on top, rather than on a commission basis. The ‘ethical’ side also refers to the fact HF fundraisers don’t pressurise people into signing up, whereas those on commision are more likely to do so otherwise they won’t get paid!

15 01 2012
lottie

This article was brought to my attention by a past fellow “chugger” (charity hugger) of mine. I’m sad to read that you have had such a bad experience in what I consider to be the best job in the world! Admittedly fundraising is also one of the hardest jobs in the world and requires genuine passion for your campaign and drive to strive for the best results. I was a street fundraiser for 14 months and a team leader for the most part of it and would like to relay my experiences back to you as not to give fundraising the bad stigma that it already holds from most people. I started in fundraising because I am really passionate about international development and wanted to start my career in “helping to save humanity”, fundraising gave me this foot in the door. I worked on a number of different campaigns all of which I enjoyed and worked damn hard at to produce the results that are expected in fundraising, from what I can gather I was on a very similar pay structure to you and I think fair is fair. The reason fundraiser’s are paid such a high hourly rate is because the company’s that work for the charities and the charities themselves understand that it is a difficult job that when boiled down is basically going out in any weather conditions and asking people to take a moment to listen to you and then become inspired enough to donate to your cause. If you can relay that message and put your all into it then you will be rewarded from the charity with a bounus, this work’s because you are making the charity x amount of money via donations and they can then afford to reward you for it, do you think it’s fair to go out already on your hourly rate then get paid more money for gaining no results? Travel time is always considered a grey area in fundraising, but again is a bonus if you get paid it your getting paid to sit in a car or on a train with your team mates drinking coffee and reading the paper, how fair is it to spend the charity money on that??? Plus any other job dose not pay you from the time you leave your house to the time that you arrive at work. So in fundraising you do have the potential to earn a large amount of money but your going to have to work for it. I understand from your article that you experienced some really disturbing events especially with your mystery shoppers I agree that that’s highly unprofessional and will only result in intimidating fundraiser’s and there for creating a negative vibe around the team resulting in you not being able to work to your best ability. However as for sick pay etc again another grey area in most jobs but in fundraising you have to start with the understanding that your working off charity money an amount that has been budgeted by the charity themselves to spend on fundraising to increase their monthly donors, how fair is it to take money out of that budget because your off sick??
Fundraising is in a nutshell an amazing job, it opens doors to “unqualified” young people that genuinely care about humanity and making our world a better place, it’s difficult frustrating and damn right rubbish at times but thoes few times it is is nothing compared to the feeling you get when you have stopped a stranger and they sign up!!!

16 01 2012
Richard Exworthy

There are two stories here; bad employment practices on the one hand, and street (or door-to-door) fundraising on the other. Okay, so the two stories are heavily inter-linked, but please don’t reply with “I hate chuggers” if what you really mean is “I think bad employers should be made to improve”.

In 15 years of fundraising, I have never been encouraged by any employer to join a Union.

12 12 2012
Jayne

I went for an interview with Home Fundraising. I was too much of a liability because I wouldn’t say ‘how much can I put you down for?’. It was a waste of time, an orc factory ‘d like to call it…

I’d be interested to know though…where do they get the money to pay everyone by the hour from?

2 million from Oxfam to do this ‘campaign’
£8 a month average donation and you’re supposed to sign 8 people per week
£240 (ish) p/w for every employee

the weekly wage outweighs the amount of donations that you raise, so I don’t get it :S

20 12 2012
hiphopvibez

I currently work at Home in Manchester ,they are a fabulous company..
I do not have a single colleague who is unhappy.
I will run through your points made….
Firstly we all get paid properly ..
Secondly i personally do not mind if management check i am working ,it would be very easy to nip in the pub all day..
They actually motivate us and get out and fund raise alongside us many times.
Why is that such a problem ?..
Bonuses are fine i am only 6 weeks in but already get 6/7 per week ..i have colleagues who get 5/6 a night.
Also learning a pitch is vital ,you cannot turn up to a door unscripted and without facts or structure to what you are saying ,i actually love trying to get the pitch right.
We also get paid travel mine has just come through for the last two weeks.
Speaking personally i am guessing you could not make it as a fundraiser so have a grudge.
What i understand even before i started at Home, is that i need sign ups, otherwise a file is being sent around the streets and being paid for nothing.
I want as many as i can and will work hard to get it, we all also have a mentality of raising as much as we can for the charity ,if we don`t perform the charity loses cash ,where is the problem.
We all have a great atmosphere together at home like a big family ..
Lay off us all we are a great company and full of great people..

You are going to adversely affect us all with stories like this..which simply aren`t true..

Adrian Wilkinson
Fundraiser ..Home Fundraising Manchester ..and proud..

20 12 2012
hiphopvibez

I also do not have a problem with charities knocking on doors ,i do not believe people are exploited ,they are given facts of campaigns and what we need to raise funds for and can make an informed decision.
30% of charity revenues come from door to door fundraising thats a huge chunk.
Without us charities would struggle.
I also do not think that people mind ,most even if not supporting us tell us they feel we do a good job.
We have to have that direct contact with the public to get support as with any campaign or marketing.
I feel many people become very paranoid of intentions of people because of society.
Many doors have a mistrust of the donation process.
Obviously i work for Home Fundraising so could not bring legal action, but you should apologize for those comments, it does not paint us in a good light.
Which is a shame as we are good people as are our management.

20 12 2012
Jayne

You couldn’t take legal action anyway. You can’t threaten people for sharing opinions, coming from someone with experience in working in charity you don’t seem to support human rights do you?
I would be interested to know where your company finds the money to pay each employee by the hour?

EMPLOYEE: £7 P/H
+ £30 BONUS FOR EACH EMPLOYEE AFTER HITTING THEIR TARGET

DONOR: £8 P/M (minimum)

Enlighten me…is there something I’m missing? If you ignore my question or try and change the subject you’ll have a pretty close idea of what i think of your ethical company.

20 12 2012
Jayne

You can’t threaten people for sharing opinions, coming from someone with experience in working in charity you don’t seem to support human rights do you?
I would be interested to know where your company finds the money to pay each employee by the hour?

EMPLOYEE: £7 P/H
+ £30 BONUS FOR EACH EMPLOYEE AFTER HITTING THEIR TARGET

DONOR: £8 P/M (minimum)

Enlighten me…is there something I’m missing? If you ignore my question or try and change the subject you’ll have a pretty close idea of what i think of your ethical company.

20 12 2012
Mike Smith

I would just ignore these hollow threats from the chuggers, they’re just doing what chuggers do….coerce and intimidate people. I would like to say that Home Fundraising are as bad as all the others from my experience and they, until recently used to be a branch of the notorious TAG Campaigns group which was uncovered by the Sunday Telegraph for law breaking and fraud last summer.

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/9747442/How-Tag-was-caught-breaking-code.html

20 12 2012
Mike Smith

Jayne, if you wish to now how the system works financially, the Newsnight investigation on chugging in August 2010 give a good indication. It take at least 18 months for a charity to break even if someone gives an average of £9 pm and stayed with them. If they left before this time, the charity would lose money and the Chugger company would keep all of it…….unknowingly to the donar…shocking!!

20 12 2012
Mike Smith

by the way jayne, do not believe what hiphopvibez says, its certainly not 30% of charity revenues come from door to door fundraising alone. The fact is, and its on the PFRA website, that only 2% of charities income comes from F2F fundraising either on the streets or door to door.

23 12 2012
Jayne

I don’t believe anything he/she says at all! Only 2 weeks ago I was at an interview with a quite rude interviewer. I find it rather odd that I’ve managed to attract a worker who works at home fundraising @ Manchester..Manchester being where I attended the interview. I am glad I didn’t get the job, I couldn’t work for this company. From what you’ve written their methods are indecent and immoral.

Thank you very much for sharing the links and information with me Mike. The interviewer certainly didn’t enlighten me with this information during the ‘orc process’..what an absolute joke. The fact that hiphopvibez attempted to basically threaten me (or hint legal action) for sharing my opinion and asked for an apology is quite comical and just shows the company to be what it is – a joke!

8 05 2013
Chris Leyton

I recently started street fundraising directly for A charity, on A paid by the hour basis. I have been impressed by the quality of the people training me and some of their attitudes towards the charity as a whole. I have also heard about the figures behind the investments and I think from a business point of view it makes sense, its simply A case of spending money to make money. I also challenge anyone to disagree as from my viewpoint my business/charity is a whole lot more ethical than any one else’s. I am genuinely interested to know anyone else’s viewpoint. I also when working have to follow a strict protocol in regards to ensuring the best possible donors are selected and to get the best return for the charity. It was actually my first day today so I am still learning.

10 05 2013
jayne

‘A case of spending money to make money’
WHAT IF – you are spending a lot more money than you’re making?
Let’s be honest you said it yourself ‘ business/charity’ it’s a business! The aim of the game is to guilt trip customers into giving you money? I was appalled by a particular interviewer at home fundraising in Manchester. She was quite comical. All I learnt in my training was how to guilt trip people into giving you money. I’m sure all the charities that you represent are decent but it’s clear to see that all the money you make do not go to the charity. Profit’s being made somewhere!

26 08 2013
Mike smith

James, if you work for a company that approaches people in the street or on doorsteps for money, that very act is a passive aggressive act and is unethical. All chugger companies are bad and should be closed down as they rely on press gang methods to make a profit.

27 08 2013
dale jeffrey

I actually worked for the brc and it your right I do think the office made profit for its permanent staff. The investment as it was put forward by the trainers was a long term thing, so a fundraiser has to sign up so many and after say a year the investment would see a return. It was run as a business. I would say that after a little experience the people actually on the street are good manipulators and thats what makes them get the signups. Morally chugging is not a good thing but is that offset by the results it achieves ?




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