Saturday 24 June 2017

'You're a filthy b**** who doesn't deserve kids' - How I went undercover on streets with the chuggers

In day one of a three-part investigation into on-street charity collection, Sarah-Jane Murphy reveals how chuggers are trained and why they target donors over the age of 25

Sarah-Jane Murphy hard at work on the streets: Each donor becomes profitable in the second year. Photo: Gerry Mooney
Sarah-Jane Murphy hard at work on the streets: Each donor becomes profitable in the second year. Photo: Gerry Mooney

Sarah-Jane Murphy

We've all come across them - and few of us are fans.

Prior to commencing work as an on street charity collector, I knew little about ‘chugging’.

In Ireland, most charities are signatories to the Irish Fundraising Forum's Code of Practice. However, there have been calls by politicians for a more stringent legislative framework to regulate the practice of chugging.

 So, in order to fully understand how chugging works, I applied to several organisations - including Trocaire, Concern, Amnesty International, Barnardos, Irish Dogs Trust and Focus Ireland - seeking work as an on-street fundraiser.

Only one of the above organisations - Amnesty International - offered me a face to face interview.

The next phase of the recruitment process for a 'direct dialogue fundraiser' took the form of a group interview at Amnesty HQ in Dublin 1.

Sarah Jane Murphy pictured for feature on 'Chugging'. Picture; Gerry Mooney.
Sarah Jane Murphy pictured for feature on 'Chugging'. Picture; Gerry Mooney.

Myself and six other potential candidates were put through our paces by two Amnesty employees.

Each candidate was asked to give a three minute presentation on a subject that evoked passion in us.

Following the 90 minute group interview I received a phonecall nearly a week later, informing me I got the job and inviting me to attend an all-day training session.

And I was in.

Next step was my training - which lasted eight hours.

Throughout our training and each morning team briefing session, we were encouraged to approach potential donors aged over the age of 25, as they were seen as more "lucrative to the charity".

Read More: 'Rule of thumb is: the older they are, the longer they stay' - training booklet

References were also made to the possibility of legacies being left to Amnesty by donors in their will, and the theory outlined was the concept of the "loyalty ladder", ie a middle-aged donor will continue to give over an average of 13 to 15 years and it is possible they will leave a bequest to the organisation in the event over the death.

Our training stressed that we could not approach anybody under the age of 18.

And while 18 to 25-year-olds could be signed up, the message was that people in this age group are more likely to cancel their direct debits due to changing economic circumstances.

We were told that for the first year, the donors aren't worth anything.

However, with 'donor development', from the second year on this donor becomes profitable.

I often wondered how they feel about being called 'chuggers', a term that unkindly fuses the words 'mugger' with 'charity'.

"The word chugging is often used by the media and has negative connotations," a member staff at Amnesty told me.

Numerous charities use agencies to supply face-to-face fundraising staff, but Amnesty prefer to interview and hire their own employees.

“It makes us more accountable," a staff member said.

 During training, numerous psychological tips were recited to demonstrate how we would build rapport with a member of the public on a busy street in a speedy fashion - apparently you have precisely seven seconds to create the right impression with a stranger. No pressure then!

Chuggers at Amnesty work hard, and must achieve their target - signing three donors per day. If targets are consistently not reached, the chugger's performance will be closely monitored and if it doesn't improve their employment may be terminated in accordance with the terms of their employment.

Read More: Street cash crucial for Amnesty, says CEO

On the job training is given in the form of daily briefing sessions, where chugging role-plays were enacted to keep pitches to the public fresh and relevant.

Following a six week probationary period during which an hourly rate of €9.15 is paid, the hourly pay increases to €10, and chuggers receive a modest commission of €10 for each person they sign up.

Despite being a fit and healthy woman who isn't afraid of hard work, I found standing on the streets for seven hours a day, with a smile nailed to my face, tough going.

It's not just the stiffness in the joints, the hoarse voice you develop, or the sideways, lashing rain that got to me. It was the constant looks, the mutterings, the comments and the eye-rolls from the passing public.

The team I was assigned to was tasked with raising awareness and recruiting donors to support the 'My Body My Rights' campaign.

Amnesty are currently campaigning to change what they call "the restrictive nature" of Irish abortion law.

They believe abortion should be permissible in cases of rape, incest, fatal foetal abnormality or if there is a grave risk to the life of the woman.

I was told by my team leader that Amnesty advocate a "pro-health" approach to terminations, and differ from pro-choice organisations in this respect.

Our instructions were to outline the "outrageous facts" regarding abortion in Ireland, and ask the person to come on board as a member of Amnesty, and lobby for a referendum to repeal the Eighth Amendment.

On the whole, the people of Dublin seemed almost indifferent to the divisive and important cause we were campaigning for.

Clutching shopping bags and slurping smoothies, laughing with friends and colleagues, they apparently had other things on their minds.

Of all the thousands of people I encountered on Dublin's streets, only one succeeded in leaving me shaken.

A dapper man, wearing a beige trenchcoat, stopped to chat at lunchtime on a drizzly Mary's Street. We were a couple of minutes into the conversation, and I had outlined the aim of the 'My Body My Rights' campaign.

Suddenly he leaned in towards me, his face inches from mine.

"Do you have kids?" he asked me.

"No." I replied.

"And do you want them someday?"

"Yes, I think so."

"Well you're a filthy bitch who doesn't deserve kids. Out here campaigning for abortion. I hope you never experience motherhood."

He spat in the general direction of my shoes and missed, and with that he and his beige trenchcoat were gone and I was left open-mouthed, reeling and upset.

My team leader was extremely empathethic when I relayed what had occured, and said that unfortunately she had experienced similiar treatment on the Capital's streets. She kindly offered me the opportunity to take a break and get myself together, but I opted to continue working.

Several members of the public that I spoke to stood out in terms of the emotional impact the conversations had on me.

At College Green, a smartly dressed middle aged man became increasingly angry and red-faced, as he told me his young daughter made two trips to the UK for terminations because fatal fetal abormalities meant her babies would not survive outside the womb.

"It sickens me, it enrages me, its so, so wrong," he said through clenched teeth.

A softly-spoken elderly woman, perhaps in her 70s, clutching a walking stick, stopped to talk to me on O'Connell Street.

She confided that she had an abortion in London in the 1970's, and cannot believe that she will likely go to her grave without seeing the Eighth Amendment repealed.

"It's inhumane," she said.

During my employment with Amnesty the Console scandal broke and had an immediate and damaging effect on our fundraising activities.

The story was consistently dominating the national news agenda, with increasingly sordid and squalid details becoming public as the days went on.At our early morning briefing in Amnesty International HQ, the matter was raised by team leaders and co-ordinators.

 We were told to remind members of the public that the organisation prides itself on transparancy and accountability.

It turned out to be a depressing and frustrating day, with maybe a dozen people telling me they wouldn't stop and talk "because of that crowd Console."

We knew were fighting against a rising tide of public sentiment; the difference in people's attitudes when compared with previous days on the streets was blatently apparent.

 So what did stepping into a chuggers shoes experience teach me? A valuable lesson as it happpens.

You may not want to sign up with a chugger. You may not be in a position to afford to sign up with a chugger.

But after more than 30 hours working the streets of Dublin, battling the elements, clad in my chugger uniform I have just one thing to say to the general public:

It costs absolutely nothing to be polite.

Amnesty and their employees, together with all organisations that carry out face-to-face fundraising, are at all times subject to the Irish Fundraising Forum's Code of Practice (IFFCP). The rules ban the collection of cash and cheques on the streets, and state that a member of the public must never be followed to an ATM machine.

The code also stipulates that a donor's bank details must be handled in a secure fashion at all times.

At all times during Amnesty training sessions, the IFFCP guidelines were strictly followed, with transparency and accountability being cited as key values within the organisation.

Irish Independent

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