The morality of ‘chugging’

Imants Latkovskis

charity mugger 2

Having worked as a charity fundraiser is like having worked in porn. It almost necessarily involves saying “I was young, naive, and needed the money,” which was my case exactly.

Chuggers (charity muggers), the cheerful people in bright jackets that have become almost unavoidable on high streets and doorsteps, do get a lot of bad press, mostly because of their predatory and annoying nature. But not a lot of people realise how morally questionable the enterprise actually is.

The business of charity might not be a scam in the traditional sense, since at the end of the day, charities do get money for their causes, and the other party – donors – pat themselves on the back and have something awesome to brag to their grandma about. Win-win. But don’t forget the middle party going home with a huge amount of money, earned hard through manipulation, lying and just making people feel bad when they don’t want to “just give up a packet of crisps at the end of the week”.

I worked as a charity fundraiser for two months last summer before I got offered a real job. I was easy prey for the company that employed me; I wanted money, the hours were fine and I really did believe I would be doing something morally good. Buzzwords like “ethical” and “making a difference” were repeated so many times during the interview that by the time I left the building, I felt like I was about to become Mother Theresa.

It took me a few days to realise there was nothing ethical in what I was doing. Essentially, the job involves persuading people to fill in direct debit forms so that they can make monthly donations to a charity. You get paid on an hourly basis, as well as bonus commission. The more donations, the more money in your bonus.

To do this, I had to memorise a carefully structured speech and a few clever ways to “handle objections”, which was just lingo for manipulating people when they said ‘no’. Not surprisingly, this did involve a fair share of lying and bending the truth.

When someone was sick of talking to you and said they’ll just do it online, you had to say that online donations get a chunk of money stripped away due to “admin fees” (whatever that means) which is not true. Online donations are actually direct, whereas doing it through fundraisers means contributing to their pay. When people said they already support other charities, you had to make them feel special about doing so, while at the same time telling them they’re monsters if they don’t support yours. When people said they were skint, you had to get as much information as you could about their spending habits and then make them feel bad, comparing how much their money could mean to others. “Cheeky question – do you go out?” was my personal favourite that made me cringe the most. Moreover,  “would you like to get involved?” was no good, as team leaders would get ultrasonic if you didn’t say “I’m sure I can count on your support!” as if that wasn’t the most annoying thing you can say to someone.

Taking no for an answer and letting go was one of the deadly sins as well. Just to tease you, the team leader listening would say “Oh, that would have definitely been a sign up there if you had kept going”. The diligent kids really took the advice in and tortured people, sometimes for 15 minutes, desperately asking the same question over and over again.

Unsurprisingly, most conversations ended with rejection. Instead of respecting that we, fundraisers, have impeded on other’s time and moving on, rejection was always a cue to return to your pack and find the most colourful words to express how horrible and evil the people they were speaking to were. Questioning people’s spending habits was commonplace as well. Elderly women, by definition spent all of their money on “soggy biscuits” and were therefore cruel hags if they didn’t donate. If the person had a disability or were in a situation relevant to the charity, that was used to trigger sympathy, often in a very cruel, insensitive way.

To make the job even more ethically questionable, the company that I worked for organises a free bar at a nightclub every few months. For free. Meaning that kind-hearted and unsuspecting donors were in turn buying us jagerbombs, which didn’t feel right at all. Not to mention free pizza every Wednesday which was followed by a two-hour long (unpaid) brainwashing session where everyone is riled up to get as many donations as possible. “We’re different because we are passionate about our charities!” No surprise. Find a sock salesman who’s not absolutely exhilarated by argyle.

A lot of people that do this work are, unsurprisingly, students who need money. Fundraising agencies are always hiring, and their attractively-worded ads online are a desert mirage to any jobseeker, and they really do hire anyone. If you are in that position and screwing people out of their money under false pretences and lying to them sounds better than KFC, then the job might not be that bad. Otherwise, aim higher!