Can Face to Face Continue to be the Goose that Lays the Golden Eggs?

Published by Phil Woollam on

Can Face to Face Continue to be the Goose that Lays the Golden Eggs

When face to face fundraising first emerged in the late 90s, those of us working at the heart of it were overawed by its success. The fundraising sector quickly jumped on this new way to attract a  wave of committed supporters, street and door to door campaigns were rolled out from Austria to New Zealand (where I was based at the time), and by 2002 donor acquisition and return on investment levels were at an all-time high, for many non- profits. It appeared we really had found the goose that laid the golden eggs.

However, by 2005, cracks were starting to appear. Competition for street and door to door fundraising space among non-profits was heating up, commission-based pay schemes were implemented by fast growing vendors, and the race was on to be ‘first to market’ around the world. 

Some pretty dubious practices and aggressive street fundraising were caught in the spotlight and the press wasn’t good. The UK media termed street fundraisers “chuggers” (charity muggers). The halcyon days of recruiters finding untested street corners, or rows of un-knocked doors, and signing up 5 or more new donors per day, appeared to be quickly coming to an end. In fact non-profit boards and CEO’s were already suggesting that face to face was nearing the end of its lifecycle, challenging fundraising directors to find the next cash cow.

Somewhere in the race to acquire new donors, the focus on how best to keep them was being left behind. And whilst there has been numerous papers and books written on leaky buckets, supporter journey and relationship building, lifetime value of donors, how to measure and reduce attrition, universally it appears that non-profits have struggled to come to grips with the challenge of retaining donors, recruited via face to face.

Throughout the world we still see some face to face programs, with dubious donor recruitment methodology, that are doomed to fail. If donors are given a poor experience when they first make a financial commitment, they may feel misled, they often have absolutely no idea what to expect from the non-profit once they have committed to giving, and they often remain hungry for more information because the recruiter has already moved on once they have the signed donation form.

In 2014, as part of a master degree in marketing, I conducted some research, mystery shopping face to face street recruiters in 8 different countries, speaking with recruiters who were working for a range of causes, varying from animal welfare to child protection. The purpose of the research was to prove a theory; that first interaction with potential donors was one of, if not the major contributor to 12 month donor attrition. Whilst I couldn’t prove that point of recruitment was the biggest factor in donor retention, I could draw conclusions that it played a significant role in the first 12 months of the donor lifecycle.

Interviewing 117 face to face recruiters, the most startling finding was, that over 80% of the fundraisers proactively suggested, during the recruitment conversation, that I could cancel my regular gift in the first 12 months. Over a quarter suggested that I could or should cancel within the first 3 months. Given that the breakeven point for donor recruitment often lies at around 24 months or beyond, is it any wonder that the cost of face to face fundraising is giving non-profits serious headaches? 

Between 2010 and 2016, working as a consultant, I advised some of the world’s largest non-profits and UN agencies on how to build large scale face to face programs, and supporter journeys that would retain hard won new donors. This included helping to select and appoint face to face agencies. What struck me most during this period was the different way those vendors measured success; the range of metrics used to calculate cost and return on investment, and how the quality of their response for proposals varied. 

Every vendor appeared to have a different model, some with vastly exaggerated, expected retention rates. Whilst all vendors were geared towards bringing in donors, there was little evidence about the quality of donors and the methodology at recruitment, to ensure new donors were ‘sticky’. Choosing the right vendor, was not an easy task.

But times are changing, some non-profits and UN agencies are finding incredibly innovative ways of delivering face to face programs, many of which are audience specific and segment targeted. Far from being confined to the street or doorstep, we’ve seen a move towards fundraising in airports, hospitals, supermarkets and super stores, leveraging corporate partnerships to open space to more captive audiences. Over the past two years, the sector is paying much more attention to lifetime value metrics than single or 2-year ROIs, and supporter journey mapping appears to be much more sophisticated.

If we are serious about not only protecting face to face as a recruitment channel for years to come, but also maximizing the value of donor acquisition, then as an industry we need to find new and innovative spaces and methods for delivery. In my opinion we still have the opportunity to keep the goose laying golden eggs and not turning into turkey.

This means investing in thinking about what the experience for the potential donor looks like, not just when the recruitment form passes to the non-profit or supporter care team, but most importantly at the point of recruitment. We need to think about what questions we should be asking new supporters, what we should be saying and, just as importantly, not saying. How do we turn a ‘chugging’ experience into a positive commitment from our fresh new donors? How do we get these donors to see our non-profit as the one they won’t leave or switch their gift from?

It’s these questions and many more that we need to explore if we are to succeed in meeting the potential of modern-day face to face fundraising. At a time where talking with our supporters has never been more important, surely this is one channel that the sector must work together to protect.


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Phil Woollam

Phil Woollam

Phil Woollam is Vice President of International Strategy and Growth at the International Rescue Committee, based in the US. With responsibility for global mass market fundraising strategy and implementation, he has a long history of leading international face to face fundraising programs at multiple non-profits and on a consultancy basis. Phil started his fundraising career at Greenpeace New Zealand in 2000, where he went on to lead the expansion of face to face globally for Greenpeace International until 2006. He will be presenting along with fundraising experts from across the world at the International Face to Face Fundraising Congress (17-19 November 2020, Vienna).


Daryl Upsall · March 5, 2020 at 10:54

Well done Phil. Timely and useful article and hopefully we will address many of these issues together at the 1st International face to Face Fundraising Conference in Vienna in November.

James Long · March 5, 2020 at 12:50

Interesting stuff Phil, however playing devil’s advocate I’d suggest finding alternative and innovative locations may not offer the solutions I’m sure we all wish for. While some examples, such as World Vision’s ‘Story’ pop ups offer a glimpse of alternative approaches, for the majority of charities where scale is required perhaps location and the experience is not the factor impacting retention but rather the typical pyschological profile of face to face recruits that makes them more prone to be signed up but with no intention of continuing their support.

Sherry Bell · March 5, 2020 at 13:07

Great post. Looking forward to your session at the F2F Congress.

erica waasdorp · March 5, 2020 at 13:40

Yes. As someone who especially loves the back end/retention piece of sustainer fundraising, it’s still amazing at how often there’s that disconnect between bringing in F2F acquired sustainers and then who and how they’re treated those first few months. It all fits together. Great post!

Phil Woollam · March 5, 2020 at 14:10

James, yes I agree completely the profile of recruits and recruiters play’s a significant role in both sign up and retention, we could spend hours on that one alone.However on innovative space versus scale it isn’t a binary question or solution, there are examples where non profits have used innovative space at scale , i.e. 20,000 + supporters per year at really high retention rates delivering impressive break-even points and LTV’s, and lots of examples where non profits have brought in 50,000 new supporters and are struggling to break-even even in year 4 and 5 .Personally I would rather take lower gross numbers of donors at a better ROI and retention rate. Which segues into the broader question of gross versus net. A lot of vendors and non profits I have worked with are entirely focused on scale equating to gross numbers of donors recruited, when the key metric we should be looking at is net revenue created by the program. Looking forward to debating theses questions at the F2F congress in November

Nikolaos Spandagos · March 5, 2020 at 16:00

It’s interesting to see the same questions persisting over the years. I remember when I was setting up the first F2F operations for Greenpeace and WWF in SE Europe in the early 00s we were already investing in…recruiting the recruiters. I no longer work on F2F but I do recognise the value it has for many markets and in that sense I think it’s encouraging to hear that there are Orgs out there testing an audience-based and segment-targeting approach. I would also argue that we need to rethink the core function of F2F: it’s the super-weapon of activation but how sustainable is it outside of well planned engagement journey BEFORE and after activation?

Kevin Schulman · March 5, 2020 at 21:34

The majority of F2F interactions are positive. We know this from a huge, multi-country/charity sampling of the only source that matters – the donor. However, a donor reporting a positive interaction doesn’t preclude having been told they can cancel anytime; it may even be part of why a given donor found the experience positive.

We know satisfaction is only one of about 20 factors that predict churn. Of the 20(ish) , the majority are missing from the traditional approach. Satisfaction, Commitment (attachment to brand) and Identity (attachment to cause) are crucial to accurate churn models. Interventions can be put in place to halve attrition but only when you capture the missing data that tells you something about the human being.

This process provides a forward-looking, real-time quality score at the donor/canvasser level. This is used to fundamentally change how acquisition (training, incentives, metrics, culture) and journey are done. A one size fits nobody journey is always sub-optimum. No amount of guesswork or “ideation” or new venue is going to solve for the inherent flaw in the mindset saying we can run this F2F business knowing nothing about these people.

The future is here, it just isn’t evenly distributed.

Paul Tavatgis · March 5, 2020 at 23:55

Thanks for a very thorough and timely article Phil. Your insights reflect a lot of what we are experiencing in the Australian market which has been operating at a high level of recruitment for at least 15 years. Quality, as measured in donor retention rates has been falling, costs have risen and the consequence for net income has been negative.

We run mystery shopping programs for charities and agencies, and these often reveal those same poor behaviours at the donor sign up. The debate is which has the greater impact – poor initial contact or inadequate donor stewardship, and my money is on the initial sign up, it would be great to test that in a meaningful and reliable way. Either way we have to do better at both – because face to face is too important a channel to be allowed to decline.

The Australian market is changing though. We have had more demand than supply for years, which has meant that agencies have not had to compete for business. Demand seems to be decreasing in the face of falling income from face to face, and agencies are now having to chase business. I really hope that the competition that this will cause is not just based on price, with charities chasing the lowest CPA, and that we see some innovation and improvement in quality from our leading agencies.

One last thought – this isn’t negative for Australia. We still have great face to face fundraisers, but a lot of them are poorly trained and led. Charities have the power to make better choices and partner with vendors to raise the channel back to the quality levels we used to enjoy. As a few people have said recently – let’s be part of the solution not the problem…

Amit Kaushik · March 11, 2020 at 02:45

Every channel has its saturation point. Still it will vary from market to market. Many markets are still seeing growth of face to face programs. I cannot agree more with Paul that training of face to face fundraisers is the key to success.
Another part of the problem is organisation’s own attitude towards face to face fundraisers. How many organisations give a growth opportunities to face to face fundraisers within the organisation? Why Not develop a proper career path with skill development?

Face to face needs innovation. Integrated use of face to face with other channels/activities is the future.

Ewald Verhoog · November 10, 2020 at 13:08

Hi Phil. Great article. I remember well that you found better ways to perform F2F, with interest-based journeys. So not starting with the cause or the organization, but with a problem the potential donor could easily relate to, and then following that first conversation up with a relevant dialogue. (The way I say it now makes it look like a trick, but it wasn’t. It was the logical process behind all relations). Did you share any video’s, blogs or slideshares about your findings on Social Media. And if so, could you please share the links?

granny · January 6, 2021 at 08:26

Face-to-face fundraising is a phenomenal power for fundraising and it can be an amazing job – you get to be the person that inspires others to do something truly wonderful and connect with a cause that you’re truly passionate about.

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