Walk down almost any major city high street in the run-up to Christmas and you will see them – charity fundraisers clad in fluorescent jackets and armed with clipboards, trying to get shoppers to make direct debit donations to good causes.
While some view them as essential fundraisers, others consider them a bit of a nuisance, obstructing the pavement and using our guilt as a sales tactic. For this reason, they have been given the unflattering name of "chuggers" – part charity collectors, part muggers. But whatever side you are on, there is little doubt as to the effectiveness of chugging.
Last year alone, 210,000 people were persuaded to sign up in the street to support charities, according to the Public Fundraising Regulatory Association. Of the £24m raised last year by Shelter, the charity for the homeless, a quarter came from donors recruited by street fundraisers.
"It has brought in literally millions of new donors," says Alan Gosschalk, Shelter's fundraising director. "On average, every £1 spent on face-to-face fundraising brings in a return of £3."
The majority of street fundraisers work for third-party agencies that have contracts with charities. So if you are considering signing on the dotted line, is the money going directly to the cause? According to Charity Facts, which provides information about the sector, an agency will typically take a fee of £50 to £60 for each person signed up.
Before you agree to donate via street fundraising, ask the collector to tell you exactly how much of your money is going to the charity. Be careful, too, when giving out your bank details to someone claiming to be collecting for charity. "Check they have an authentic ID and a registered charity number," advises Chris Kiggell of the Charity Commission, who adds: "If you know you want to donate money to a charity, then give directly and skip the middle man to maximise your contribution."
Street fundraisers will be subject to a new law from 2009 forcing them to apply for a special Charity Commission permit as well as a local authority one. The legislation will also give councils the power to restrict the number of chuggers operating in their area; in fact, many are lobbying for this to happen sooner, as some shopping streets are already swamped by fundraisers.
So worried about the activities of some street collectors is the trade body the Institute of Fundraising that it issued best-practice guidelines to chuggers earlier this year, calling on them to be non-aggressive and to avoid "congestion and nuisance to the public".
If you prefer to give direct to charity, make sure you make the most of your contribution. Under the Gift Aid scheme, charities can reclaim basic-rate tax relief on any voluntary donations, provided the donor is a taxpayer. For example, 22p can be reclaimed on a donation of 78p, increasing the donation to £1.
What's more, Gift Aid enables higher-rate taxpayers to reclaim the 18 per cent difference between the two tax bands – the basic and higher rate – for themselves when filing their tax return.