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Groups say paid fundraisers are more cost-effective than volunteers

Reporters: Christine Tai,  Stephanie Chan

A group of people wearing T-shirts bearing the same logo go to Mongkok, pick a spot with heavy pedestrian traffic and set up booths and banners. Then they take out donation boxes and start their work.

Their job is to raise as much money as they can. They are not volunteers but street fundraisers employed by a charity.

Diana Tang, who does not want to disclose her full name, was recruited through an advertisement in the Labour Department to work as a street fundraiser for Children Life Stimulation Organization last summer. She got HK$300 a day as basic pay and was told the fundraiser who raised the most money in their team would get a HK$50 bonus. Tang thought the job sounded meaningful and HK$300 was a good salary, so she took the job. But she quit after three days.

“(The team leader) gave me pressure every day,” she complains. She explains that because a team leader receives commission based on the total amount of donations the team raises, their attitude changes according to how much money team members collect.

“The team leader scowls at you but then he’ll grin when you get a donation,” says Tang. She recalls an incident when her team leader called her to complain that her performance was really bad. He told her the amount she raised would only help 22 children.

Tang blames the commission system for the harsh treatment meted out by team leaders. She says the system made her feel she was raising money in order to make money rather than to help people. This has affected her impression of charities and she has become suspicious of street fundraising. “I thought helping charities was meaningful. But I would not have taken the job if I knew I had to work like a salesperson.” Children Life Stimulation Organization did not respond to our enquiries.

Chris Ho, who got a job as a street fundraiser for Hong Kong Animal Adoption Centre (HKAAC) after taking his Hong Kong Certificate of Education exams, feels the same way.

Ho, who prefers not to use his full name, says he was told the monthly salary for the job was around HK$7,000 to HK$9,000 if he raised HK$1,000 a day. However, if fundraisers did not manage to meet the HK$1,000 a day quota, their salary would be deducted by HK$50 for every HK$100 to HK$200 less than the quota. If the fundraisers raised more than the quota, every extra HK$100 to HK$200 would  bring them a bonus of HK$50.

“I do not want to give money to street fundraisers after taking the job… I think they are cheating,” Ho says. He believes working for charities should be done on a voluntary basis and questions whether donations are really being used to help people in need if the charities are spending money on paying fundraisers.

When Ho quit the job after a week, he did so not just because of misgivings about the organization, but also because the work was so demanding. He had to go to the office at around seven to eight o’clock to collect the donation box. Then he would be assigned to different districts, like Causeway Bay and Tsuen Wan, and started to work at 9 a.m.. He remembers that sometimes he worked until 9 p.m. because he could not meet the quota.

A Varsity reporter went to a job interview at the HKACC and found the method of calculating salaries had changed. The organisation no longer sets a quota for the amount of money raised. Instead, fundraisers get 30 per cent of the total amount of donations they raise themselves as their daily salary.

The interviewer also told our reporter that fundraisers do not need to work long hours. As long as they are satisfied with the amount of money they earn on any given day, they can go home even if they have only worked for one hour. “Honestly, if you want to earn money and gain experience at the same time, then “more pay for more work,” said the interviewer.

We asked HKAAC to respond to questions about their previous quota system but they had not replied by the time of printing.

Tang and Ho’s brief experience as paid street fundraisers have left them both with contradictory views about how charities should raise money on the streets. Tang thinks it is normal for charities to give commissions in order to increase the incentive for fundraisers while Ho says that setting quotas is a way to ensure fundraisers’ work performance and the amount of donations raised. Yet, both have been left with a bad impression of charities after finding out that street fundraisers are actually paid.

More and more charities, like the Hong Kong Red Cross (HKRC) and  Greenpeace are using paid street fundraisers to persuade people to join monthly donation schemes. These donation schemes give the organisations a more stable income to fund service maintenance and future development.

“It is difficult for volunteers to make long-term commitments,” Winnie Wang, the Head of Communications and Resource Development Department of HKRC, says. For example, it is hard to ask volunteers to work from 9 a.m. to 6p.m. every day as they may not always be free. HKRC’s street fundraisers are all full-time workers.

One non-government charitable organisation employee, who wants to be referred to only as Phoebe, agrees that charities cannot just rely on the availability of volunteers, especially when they really need money for projects. Recruiting street fundraisers, which is a common practice in Europe, the U.S.A. and Australia, may be the fastest way to raise money.

Phoebe also says that many charities are adopting modern management strategies and are trying to broaden their sources of income. Employing street fundraisers is just one way to get more donations. However, it can be an important method for small charities because they do not have the resources of large charities to organise big shows and events like the Tung Wah Charity Show and the Standard Chartered Hong Kong Marathon.

Ho Wai-chi, who has worked for different charities and is familiar with their management, says street fundraising is a kind of marketing activity. It requires an effective, systematic approach and understanding of the market. It is also a profession.

“Just taking a box on the street does not mean you can successfully raise money,” Ho says. Fundraisers must have knowledge and skills. For example, they should be able to provide basic information about the charity and answer questions from potential donors.

Ho points out a common misunderstanding about paid fundraisers. He says Hong Kong people

tend to think that charitable work should be done by volunteers rather than paid workers. However, he believes that charity does not mean “everything is free”. Fundraisers have professional knowledge and they need training, they also need to earn a living.

“People say there is no free lunch in the free market but they assume everyone doing voluntary work is providing free lunch.”

Another misconception is that it costs a lot to recruit fundraisers while using volunteers does not cost anything. Ho explains that using volunteers has invisible costs. For example, volunteers have full-time jobs but they sacrifice their work hours to help charities. If volunteers are suddenly unable to help, charities have to make alternative arrangements, which leads to higher costs.

Ho says recruiting paid street fundraisers has been proven to be cost efficient. An organisation spending a little money to employ a fundraiser can bring in long-term donations by monthly donors. The cost of recruitment is covered once donors keep up donations for three months or more.

Ho says keeping fundraisers motivated is important and using a bonus system gives employees an incentive. He disagrees with the widespread perception that it is “evil” to recruit paid volunteers. He says people have this idea because they only focus on the fact that more donations lead to higher earnings for fundraisers. They think the fundraisers are the ones who benefit the most.

“If fundraisers earn more, that means more people are willing to make more donations.” Ho believes people in need are the ones who benefit the most in the end, as they can get more help from charities.

But while Ho thinks the bonus system is necessary, he disagrees with making deductions in fundraisers’ salaries if they fail to meet quotas. “Measures to motivate fundraisers should not involve threatening them,” Ho says. “That will make fundraisers feel bad because they need to force donors to give more money.”

What charities need is motivated, well-trained staff with professional knowledge, and that includes their fundraisers. “Kind-heartedness alone cannot enable us to do what needs to be done…when handling the social problems we face today,” says Ho.

What charities need to do, he adds, is to explain to citizens why they need paid fundraisers while citizens need to be open-minded towards this practice. “You cannot completely depend on free things. The operation of society actually costs money.”