Face-to-Face: In or Out?

Published by Jack Ryan on

Justin Bieber - born in the same year as face-to-face fundraising

Sometimes it’s easy to feel that the face-to-face recruitment of regular donors has been around forever, but in reality it’s still a teenager.

Born only in 1994 face–to-face fundraising has, in its seventeen years moved from being a new and daring method of finding committed donors to a being a reliable stalwart in the fundraising toolboxes of many non-profits. And, like many teenagers, face-to-face fundraising causes a mixture of reactions ranging from intense loathing from those who hate it to those who herald it as the savior of philanthropy that allowed a new and previously hard to reach demographic to experience the joy of giving.

Some have questioned whether it is not now time for face-to-face fundraising to consider retirement; to gracefully step aside before it is pushed. However, this blogger sees plenty of life in a fundraising form that has not yet hit the grand old age of twenty. Face-to-face will surely undergo transformations in the years ahead but the power of one human looking into the eyes of another and asking them to help is too powerful to consider retiring it just yet. Instead, let’s weigh up the alternatives available to those organisations already involved in face-to-face or for those late starters who are considering how best to go about starting out in a tough and competitive fundraising marketplace.

In or Out?

If you have decided to embrace face-to-face fundraising the single biggest question that faces your organisation is: “Do we do it in-house with a team of fundraisers hired to work for our charity or do we outsource to a face-to-face agency?” Before making your decision there are a number of factors that need to be considered before you decide what is best for your organisation, the most important of these factors are Price and Risk.

Price and Risk

By and large most professional face-to-face fundraising agencies today operate on a fixed price basis. Simply put, if the agency fails to deliver any donors then the charity should pay nothing at all. The exact amount to be paid will vary, but it is usually in the realm of 100% – 200% of a donor’s total contribution over 12 months.

Greenpeace - the founders of modern day F2F

Non-profits that operate ‘in-house’ face-to-face teams are obliged to pay their fundraisers regardless of whether or not they recruit donors. For the charity this means that even if zero donors are signed up then there are still salary costs to be paid (and that is not a ROI that makes fundraisers smile). On the other hand it is possible for a well-trained and highly motivated team of in-house fundraisers to recruit a large number of donors for the same price as it would cost to recruit no donors at all.

To those seeking to avoid the painful scenario of explaining why your face-to-face project has a much lower than forecast ROI it seems the obvious choice is to use an agency. But bear in mind an in-house team, sensibly recruited, well trained, tightly managed and highly motivated can have you basking in the glow of a much higher ROI than anticipated.

And we haven’t even spoken about attrition yet…

It’s sad but true that face-to-face donors are generally less loyal than donors acquired through other channels. Many ex-donors cite their reason for cancelling as a sort of buyers’ remorse – a spur of the moment decision made without thinking through their commitment before signing up. Other claims that they were pressurized into signing up by fundraisers using manipulative tactics. Still others insist they were told they could make a one-time gift by cancelling after the first donation.

Organisations that have experienced both agency and in-house teams working in the same markets have reported a noticeable difference in donor attrition figures. With in-house teams there is a greater ability to motivate and connect recruiters to your cause and to influence them to sign-up quality donors rather than to simply go for quantity. No matter how close you are to your agency you will find it difficult to achieve the same level of commitment from fundraisers that are outsourced than those you have working for your organisation directly.

If you do decide that because of the greater risk involved it is not worth having an in-house project then it is essential to negotiate a fee clawback agreement with your agency. Ideally you will receive a refund or partial refund for each donor that cancels or downgrades during the first six months.

Size Matters

The most difficult part of running an in-house face-to-face team is the initial set up. Advertising for staff, recruiting the right people, training fundraisers to fundraise well and to be passionate about your organisation is time intensive and energy consuming. Developing the leaders within your team that will take it to new growth is not easy in terms of time or energy. Because of this many in-house programmes find it hard to reach the volume of acquisition they would like to have and as a result they remain small.

Agencies tend to be handle volume better. If you are mostly interested in getting a high number of donors recruited as quickly as possible then a well established agency will probably handle the volumes you are craving faster than you can build them in-house.

Brand Control

The Future of F2F?

Your organisations brand is its most valuable asset. Damage it and face the consequences! For most non-profits your face-to-face fundraisers are the public face of the organisation. It is highly unlikely that a face-to-face agency will allow you to decide who is or is not hired to represent you and so you must be aware that your brand is at the mercy of those who make the hiring decisions.

A few years ago an Amnesty International staff member walking around the streets of Vienna just before midnight was disturbed to find a 16-year-old trying to recruit donors. It transpired that the agency recruiter had already worked close to 12 hours that day but was forbidden to leave his post until he had reached his target. For an organisation campaigning against child labour this was a brand disaster.

Similarly, in Los Angeles in 2002 when an agency hired by Greenpeace, began locking out and firing fundraisers who wanted to join a union it was Greenpeace, not the agency, who paid the price in the media storm.

There are agencies out there that will treasure your brand almost as if it were their own, so make sure those are the ones you do business with.

On a sidenote, make sure you spend as much time as possible connecting with your face-to-face fundraisers (whether in-house or outsourced). They are not only the face of your organisation but also its eyes and ears – if you want to know what the public really think of your brand just ask a face-to-facer.

Staff of the Future

Visiting Greenpeace offices around the world it’s amazing how many staff including campaigners, fundraising directors, volunteer coordinators, receptionists, even executive directors began their careers as a face-to-face fundraiser. Some of them began in agencies, but the majority began in-house, having received a taste for campaigning early.

So, if you are fundraising today for increased capacity tomorrow remember that you increased capacity brings staff positions to fill and where better to look to fill them than amongst those who have stood on the frontlines for your organisation come rain or come shine.

So… In or Out? Or something else?

UNHCR - a hybrid model in F2F

Agencies and In-House both offer certain advantages. A novel approach is the hybrid model where the payroll and most of the legal responsibilities lie with an outside company but the personnel decisions and day-to-day management are retained in-house. It’s adds to the price and it’s not without risk, but it allows you to have your cake and eat it too.

Jack Ryan

Jack Ryan grew up in a little village in Ireland and cut his fundraising teeth at the age of 10 raising money for a new roof for the community centre. Now he lives in Stockholm and is the Head of Fundraising for Greenpeace in Sweden. Lots happened in between.


Yara Moussaoui · November 24, 2011 at 22:15

Great work Jack, and certainley realistic! There’s always a fear that new media will take the place of F2F.
F2F will change definitely in the upcoming years, but won’t be replaced completly by online fundraising.

Geoff Sloan · December 2, 2011 at 11:03

This is the most considered and least defensive discussion of F2F I’ve yet to read. The discussion of F2F on some UK charity forums is often very polarised and I admit, as some one who doesn’t want to be ‘chugged’ myself, I have had a down on F2F. This blog has given me a different perspective. Thanks!

Mitchell Hinz · December 3, 2011 at 07:24

Hello Jack! Great work. Glad you’re still up there making face to face work in Sweden. (Still wish you could get WWF to give it a go). I also thought this was quite well-balanced. However, you did miss one part that I think it *under*-estimated on in-house teams, which is that “finding a recruiting teams” is on ONGOING job, not just a “set up” job. Even outsourced agencies can fall apart for a while, when a key team leader quits, and the entire team drops. It takes time to build them back up, and this is a continual job anyone running an in-house team OR an agency. Agreed?

Thanks for your input, I have presented several ppts that are in agreement!

cheers and regards, and Hejdo (from an ex-Malmo resident!)

Mitch, WWF

    Jack Ryan · December 5, 2011 at 22:52

    Thanks for the comments Mitch. Yes, indeed it’s true that the set-up is only the first part in a series of ongoing tasks. Running an in-house face-to-face program me is a marathon and the constant maintenance is crucial for success. Any lull in maintenance will result in a dip in capacity and results.

David Cravinho · December 7, 2011 at 15:15

Hi Jack.
I agree with all the points that you’ve made above as well as Mitch’s one about the ongoing (neverending!) nature of the recruitment process in F2F teams.
One additional point that I think is worth highlighting, though, is that ‘in or out’ doesn’t have to be an either/or option. I’ve seen both set-ups co-exist within the same organisation, often to the benefit of results in both sides of the operation. Within F2F there are various different models (such as street fundraising, private site and door-to-door) that can have a range of of varying operational structures and bring their own unique challenges and issues. It can be a great strategy to specialise and have an in-house door-to-door team, for example, while using an agency to work on the street. Or to focus in-house activity in shopping malls and private site locations while outsourcing the other channels. Even using both options within the same channel can work well, provided that it’s done in a co-ordinated manner.
And while I also agree that there is generally a difference between the difference in the ‘quality’ of donors recruited by through in-house vs. agency teams, I think that there is probably a bigger difference in the results achieved by NGOs who manage their agencies well, compared to those who manage them poorly. In my experience (from both agency and NGO sides of the fence), I can’t overstate how important it is to maintain an active and close relationship with the teams that represent your organisation to the public. This can ensure that they are kept motivated, well-informed and that the best among them are keen to work on your campaign rather than for other NGOs.


Prasmono donny · February 2, 2012 at 10:14

Hi Jack!

Good Writing!

but I believe “in” better than “out” :))

see u

donny ex-Direct Dialogue Campaigner

James Goodridge · March 17, 2012 at 11:03

Hi Jack,

It’s great to find good writing on this topic. One of the things we’ve tried to do at Waysact is to to make it more achievable and more affordable for charities to do in house face to face. The biggest challenge still remains in the recruitment of good staff, but real-time stats and leaderboards shines a light on a field force. This allows for more targeted management and frees up time for other things.

I certainly agree that in house teams are more likely to be focussed on quality over quantity – and are probably less likely to attract criticism of their tactics as a result. We’ve also innovated to help connect the new supporter to the cause over the fundraiser. The new donor’s experience can be vastly improved when half way through sign up, they get an SMS with their name in it, from the charity, with a link to a video in it – the video could be from the CEO or a beneficiary thanking them for their contribution. Email can reinforce this with a receipt and further thank you providing confidence. We can even take a photo of the supporter holding up a banner that is instantly MMS’d so the fundraiser can help them Tweet or Facebook it. A welcome call that evening, a mailing (with their photo on it) that week and a transaction all taking place in the period the conversation is still fresh and relevant, all helps to improve the quality and gives the cause a chance to really shine on the street.

I hope my shameless plug for our software is forgiven but if face to face has to change, moving in house is just one answer to the problems it faces – in the spirit of #innovateordie, technology should not be forgotten for what it can contribute.

James Goodridge
CEO Waysact.com

Alex White · March 27, 2012 at 06:11

Highly unlikely that social media/new media will overtake Face to Face.

As a side note, as a union official for six years (I now work for an Australian charity as development manager), the main recruitment methods for unions is face to face… and has been for around a century. That said, the F2F agencies take it to an industrial scale.

Finally, I’d add that the main hurdle for charities looking at F2F is the start-up cost. Most F2F agencies want guaranteed initial investments of $100k or more .


Alice · May 11, 2012 at 08:46

I am trying to raise funds for an underfunded Child Protection NGO in the Philippines. We contacted at F2F organisation as I received advice that this method is very effective in Asia. The costs were so high (30%) of the donation and clawbacks if donors cancel after periods of time. The administration costs for larger organisations, Unicef, Redcross, WWF can all afford and justify these large costs. What is the option for smaller NGOs to begin to get themselves out there when they do not have the funding to contribute to a campaign or fundraiser! Its very tricky. Can anyone offer any advice?

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