Charity begins with a slam in the face

People are getting nastier on the doorstep. Hester Lacey reports
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Indy Lifestyle Online
DOOR-TO-DOOR collecting for charity is increasingly the territory of the bold. A doorstep request to fill yet another of those little paper envelopes is quite likely to be met with a snarl and a slamming door. The success of the National Lottery will not help, but even before the Lottery was launched, it was getting tough out there on the streets.

"People have definitely got meaner and nastier," said one veteran collector for Barnardo's, the British Sailors Society and Oxfam. "I have done plenty of collecting in the past but recently I came home with so many stories of people being rude to me, my husband got furious and went out to finish the collection himself. It's especially upsetting when you are snubbed by neighbours who you know quite well."

Her husband, a pensioner of 70, managed to extract a total of £33 from the 60 houses he canvassed. "The houses round here are worth around £100,000 to £150,000, but the excuses people come up with are pathetic - `I think there are plenty of things needed in this country without giving to foreigners' or `Come back when my wife's at home' - then there's no answer when you knock again because they're forewarned."

However, householders' attitudes are more hurtful than their meanness. "Most are reasonable, but some are snotty. They put you down and look down their noses, make you feel low and discouraged. It's as though they regard you as the beggar, rather than the people you're collecting for - or they think you're being paid, or collecting a percentage. It's reminiscent of being the tallyman from the Thirties - sometimes you know people are in and they just keep their heads down until you've gone."

So why do charities bother with the huge amount of organisation and volunteer effort involved in house-to-house calling, when the returns are comparatively small? While the Charities Aid Foundation estimates "a strike rate of about 84 per cent", the average gift is only around £1, and such donations account for only 6 per cent of the total given to charity each year.

In fact, the money is not the whole point. Oxfam, whch raises around £1m in Oxfam Week out of its total income of £80m, sees house-to-house calls as a way of communicating with the public and highlighting the charity's activities.

It also claims a feel-good effect for volunteers. "There is a historical reason for this kind of collecting," said an Oxfam spokesman. "People see house-to-house calls as a very important part of their role in the charity, and to deprive people of a way to help that is the way they want would be negative." Buttons, keys and foreign coins have been among the offerings received in Oxfam Week. "It can sometimes be unpleasant - people sometimes do get abuse on the doorstep, which can be disconcerting."

Neil Jones of the Charities Aid Foundation puts such experiences down to "not compassion fatigue, which we hear a lot about but for which there is no evidence, but compassion confusion. People just don't know who to give to. There are just so many charities that they are spoilt for choice. The Lottery will confuse matters even further if people think that by buying a few tickets they have done their bit - in fact, it is a singularly inefficient way of donating."

While Oxfam relies on volunteers who have already donated or collected in the past - "We can't condone cold-calling," they say sternly - many others are recruited with a random phone call. "Some charities phone up cold; others buy mailing lists of people who they believe might be sympathetic to, say, children or animals," explained Neil Jones. "I'm not sure how this is done, but some friends of mine who had recently had babies were approached by children's charities. Some people can be quite un-nerved by a call out of the blue."

My husband received such a call and agreed to collect on our street for Relate, the marriage guidance charity. He was sworn at and had doors shut in his face by compassion-confused neighbours. The total that he collected was so derisory that we added £10 of our own.

One woman, however, generously donated £5. Was she a particular fan of Relate? "No. But I know what it's like. They had me doing it last year."