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.