Why coronavirus has been UNICEF’s catalyst for change in face-to-face fundraising

Face-to-face is a key part of UNICEF’s fundraising strategy but it has been hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic. Discover how the charity has reacted to this challenge.

Written by
Daniel McDonnell
March 18, 2021

Editor’s note: This article is updated by David Cravinho from an original one by Daniel McDonnell first published on the 101 Fundraising website in October 2020.

Ever since face-to-face first took the fundraising sector by storm and became the most successful recruitment channel for regular givers, fundraiser retention has been one of the biggest challenges. 

Face-to-face fundraising is a phenomenal channel for charities, 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 passionate about.

But it’s tough and it’s not for everybody. It appeals to younger people; those who get a real buzz from connecting with others, and those with the energy and enthusiasm to be up on their feet for hours each day.

So, the age-old challenge is how do we keep really good people with us and improve our return on investment?

Face-to-face fundraising at UNICEF

At UNICEF, we run the largest face-to-face fundraising operation on earth. In 2019 alone, we recruited over half a million new supporters this way. In other words, face-to-face is hugely important for us and we want to do everything we can to support our fundraising teams.

But, ironically, it was last year – with a global pandemic in our midst – that we really stepped up our approach to retention and improving our bottom line.

One by one, as national markets shut down for weeks and, in some cases, months at a time, disengaging even the most passionate fundraisers, we knew we had to take a different path. There was an overarching feeling of uncertainty, and that manifests into frustration and disempowerment among fundraising teams.

Where and when could they work again? What would they need to do differently?

It’s particularly hard for those that work in developing countries where government support is lacking and funds are more restricted.

From our perspective, our focus has been on what we could do to help them and facilitate fundraising continuity when it is so unclear what the future holds. These issues aren’t specific to UNICEF or indeed the face-to-face industry but are part and parcel of the global backdrop that we’re all facing; with new rules for the way we can interact safely, how mobile we are, how safe we feel in our jobs and the instability of national economies.

Changes to the way fundraisers interact

More specifically for face-to-facers, the job looks and feels quite different. The beauty of fundraising in this way has always been about that wonderful connection between one human being and another. That remains the case, but fundraisers are having to work harder at achieving the same engagement and connection from behind the barrier of a mask and often at a distance. 

But there are some positive changes too. We’ve found that although there are less people on the street, those that stop really do want to talk. So, our street teams may be having fewer conversations, but they are generally more positive, with more people signing up to support the us.  And with more people at home, door-to-door activity is really picking up. People are more confident within their own space and seem generally pleased to talk to a new face. 

The other thing about COVID is that it’s levelled the playing field – the public seems to feel more connected to issues of human need and what life might be like for those living in developing countries without access to running water.

One of the hardest jobs for our fundraisers has often been to get people to understand this. A typical 45-year-old walking down the street in London never thought twice about washing his hands or having access to hand sanitiser. Now he gets it and that’s incredibly powerful. We have a wonderful opportunity to engage people like him. In fact, we’re currently ramping up to be the biggest coronavirus vaccine distributor globally and that will need some resourcing, so our face-to-face teams are more important than ever. We certainly can’t afford to sit by and lose brilliant fundraisers, when they are such a critical part of what we do.

The agile dialogue fundraiser

So, we’ve transformed our approach to focus even more strongly on personal development, giving our fundraisers a new lease of life and sense of purpose, while creating a more agile and diversified fundraising capability.

We’re investing heavily in training, giving fundraisers opportunities, where possible, to try their hand at new channels, campaigns and skills. After all, it goes without saying that happier and more fulfilled fundraisers are better engaged, raise more funds and are more likely to stay. 

You name it, we’re doing it. From delivering engagement calendars, running TED talks, team games, teaching them to have better conversations, to be team leaders, to develop their coaching skills, to manage up or manage down. Our training programme covers everything from budgeting to child safeguarding and fraud awareness and we’ve made the modules available online and in multiple languages to make them accessible to all our teams. We also award certificates for successfully completed modules as an incentive for ongoing participation (though some are mandatory anyway) and progress.

Taking inspiration from the concept of explorer bees – as presented by Rory Sutherland of Ogilvy in a recent talk to UNICEF –  the plan is that, at any one time, 10-20 per cent of our fundraisers are developing and testing new skills and techniques. 

For our teams, this means trialling different sub-channels from those they are used to, moving from the doorstep to street to shopping malls to broaden their experience and see what was working best.  They have also been transferring their skills to telemarketing and digital and, in many cases, outperforming their peers with better contact rates, higher conversion rates and average gift values. They are no longer seen as face-to-face experts, but specialists in a range of dialogue fundraising channels.

Our vision is to have most of our face-to-face teams moving between these three channels, testing a range of fundraising ‘asks’ from ‘thankathons’ to reactivations, savings and even stewarding online donors towards regular giving programmes. 

Positive impact

Honestly, it’s almost impossible to measure the impact of this on our team retention or our bottom line due to all the other recent changes, but the general vibe across our fundraising teams is of a busy, engaged and motivated team. Our fundraisers can see how much they are valued and that the skills they are developing are widely transferable. They are not stuck in a silo – they are a new generation of omni-channel fundraisers. 

We hope this means that when they get back to fundraising at full pace, they will be equipped to be even better at their jobs, with broader horizons. But ultimately this is about showing them how much they matter and that they have a huge potential with us. 

At the moment, we are implementing this approach in seven countries across Asia, Europe and South America. While we have seen a slight dip in the volume of new donors, initial quality indicators (e.g., donor retention and average gift level) are showing an improvement. We’ve found that not only does there need to be really close collaboration with specialists in other channels, like telemarketing, to help face-to-face staff develop new skills, but we also need to extend this training to managers and help both groups develop a different mindset and approach.

For UNICEF, it feeds into our risk mitigation strategy. We’re unsure what the future holds, so by rotating our teams to trial new concepts and learn new skills along the way, we know that, if the proverbial hits the fan, we are ready to make a switch. After all, in such a rapidly changing world, adaptability is what is critical. We need to be ready to pivot to whatever comes next.

We see face-to-face as a big part of UNICEF’s future – so this is our opportunity to bring it back even better and our fundraisers have to be at the heart of that.

© Daniel McDonnell/ David Cravinho 2021

About the author: Daniel McDonnell

Daniel McDonnell

Daniel McDonnell is global fundraising specialist at UNICEF.

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