The collection: it’s never to late to do something wonderful.

It was cold and my feet hurt. I’d just been rejected, for the umpteenth time and been politely told off by a station guard for rattling my bucket. ‘It annoys the staff,’ he explained. ‘Well, if you do it too much it does.’ Then a dignified middle-aged man with a beard trailing his family behind him stepped from the throng that was flowing from the shopping centre and stopped, right in front of me. He looked me full in the eye as he dug inside his voluminous winter coat, pulled out his pocket book and proceeded to empty its contents into my bucket. My spirits soared. Then he gathered his family around him, mother, teenage son and two younger daughters and spoke to them for a while in a language I couldn’t catch. Soon they were all rummaging among their clothing. The procedure took some time. Then the teenage son, beaming from ear to ear, came over to pour handfuls more cash into my bucket.
‘Thank you’, he said, then bounced off with a spring in his step to catch his departing family. For the first time that day, I felt great.

36Collection1

I was with my wife, Marie, and younger son, Charlie, standing at the top of the escalators in Bond Street station, just outside the barriers. It was Easter Sunday and, though a lot thinner than we’d anticipated, a constant flow of shoppers was coming through. Marie and I each had a bucket, Charlie had two and we’d a three-hour stint to complete. We were collecting money for Syria’s refugees and those displaced by civil war inside the country, three million-plus and growing by the day.

That sea of faces rising from the escalators is daunting, first time you confront it. They come in surges, a mixed amorphous mass. The last thing they’re expecting to greet them is three white Brits in a line, rattling buckets. Not all are pleased. Most are indifferent. Some are, well, extraordinary. If only we could have an announcement at the foot of the escalator, saying, ‘Get your money ready!’

Bond Street station is the world in microcosm, a mini United Nations. In our three hours it seemed as if every conceivable ethnic grouping filed past us. We couldn’t help but notice which were the more generous. It wasn’t the white British middle classes, far from it. Charlie felt South Asians gave most to him – a Japanese woman with a huge smile gave him half the contents of her purse. A Chinese woman with a cheeky grin slipped me a tenner. But it was middle-eastern people, mainly Muslims, who put most in my bucket. Marie’s too.

Young couples are the least generous, or so it seemed to us, with older couples not far behind. Some people love givers and giving, so support us with looks. Others prefer to look away.
Three people come at me from different angles all at the same time. Briefly the bucket gets busy. I don’t know who to thank first, so I thank the whole foyer, loudly. The station manager beams. Everyone is looking at me now.

36Buckets

Then there’s a lull. Busyness comes and goes, but the shoppers are few and I fear it’s not enough. We’re doing badly. Someone tells us that most shops are closed. For a full 20 minutes everyone ignores us. Then Marie says, ‘I’ve got three tenners.’ I think of Pavarotti and Co. but resist breaking into song.

Smile. Make eye contact. The brightest eyes are the most generous, there’s no doubting that. The bucket feels heavier, but isn’t really. We stand stock still, not rattling, not moving, buckets aloft. Then, in unison, we give them a sway.

Children really enjoy giving. A man stood in front of me for several minutes digging in his pockets. Then, having found his oyster card, he left without giving. Behind him a gaggle of Syrian women, hands ornate with henna designs, ask if they can take my photo, then give me a pile of cash. ‘Here’s £10.00, says another woman, ‘Have a nice day and thank you very much for what you’re doing.’ Smarter-dressed people are not more generous. Expensive coats don’t give, we reckon.

A young Turkish boy maybe eight or nine asks me what I’m doing.‘Why are they fighting?’, he asks. ‘What’s a refugee?’ I try to explain but can’t give him a decent justification. ‘It’s just bad’, I say. ‘People have to leave their homes and loved ones in the middle of the night.’
He looks about to get emotional. ‘I’ll speak to my auntie, ‘ he promises, ‘and come back.’ He didn’t, though he tried, I’m sure. And used some of my lines too, I bet. Perhaps, as he grows, he’ll think about it…

A young Italian man asks me the way to Buckingham Palace. I oblige, though he gives me nothing but a smile. Then another chap asks me why I’m doing this. I should have quoted some lines from A A Gill in today’s Sunday Times, but I didn’t bring it with me.

As I watch, figures appear out of the darkness, bent double under sacks. Families hold hands, moving past us like heavy ghosts. This is the last leg of one of the most dangerous journeys on Earth.

Gill goes on, in similar, graphic vein. Note for next collection: bring a supply of moving emotional stories, because sometimes people want to talk. ‘Why isn’t there more on the News?,’ one man asks. Marie responds accurately. ‘I don’t know.’

Just as we were getting ready to go a woman in a headscarf walked up to Charlie and asked what he was doing. She was young, about 25, and crying, big tears running down her cheeks. As she left him to visit the cash machine in the corner of the concourse, her eyes met mine. Minutes later she was back, clutching money. She didn’t want to speak, just put two notes into my bucket, urgently. I watched till, with a gentle push from her, they were gone. Then so was she. I was overcome.

Our time was up. We thanked London Transport’s wonderful people, signed out then headed off to find a pub, thirsty and a bit tearful. As we sauntered down Brook Street a passing gent hailed Charlie. ‘For Syria’, he said, putting a fiver in Charlie’s bucket. For a minute I thought Charlie was going to say, ‘But we’ve finished for the day.’ He didn’t.

‘You’re a toff,’ he said, beaming.

Truly it’s never too late, to do something wonderful.

36haul

© Ken Burnett 2013

An abridged version of this article is featured on The Guardian’s website.

Ken Burnett is one of six independent trustees of the UK’s Disasters Emergency Committee, the unifying body for 13 leading British aid charities which come together in times of great need to raise money for the victims of crisis and disaster. To support the DEC go here.

The President’s Task Force

From Relationship Fundraising, by Ken Burnett, Wiley 2002.

This story is and example of supporter recognition par excellence. It’s included here because it shows that donors and volunteers want to be involved in their favourite causes and will happily go along with whatever creative ways we can find to make that involvement real. This story was first told to me by an eminent American database expert called John Groman.

Donors want to be involved in their favourite causes. Even if they clearly understand it as a device designed to secure their involvement, they appear not to mind at all. The joining of a structured scheme gets them in on the inside, usually at a very modest cost. Fundraisers and campaigners should capitalise on this compulsion to belong. Voluntary organisations have a clear and very desirable product in involvement schemes, one that is so far under-developed in many countries.

A classic example of how completely this can work in practice was the launching of the President’s Task Force, an elite donor group established by Ronald Reagan’s office shortly after his election in 1981 as president of the USA. Of course the qualification to join the President’s Task Force was that you should give a minimum donation – $10 each month – to campaign funds. Large numbers of patriotic Republicans rushed to do their duty, trading a small amount of their disposable cash for the recognition and reward that went with being able to tell friends and neighbours that they were a member of the President’s Task Force.

Various pieces of commemorative paraphernalia were produced and distributed in case members had to prove their status to doubting acquaintances who needed physical evidence of their friend’s important role in the affairs of slate. These included a ‘presidential medal of merit”, a presidential medal of merit lapel pin, a model American flag, which was dedicated en masse at a special ceremony in the White House, and inscription of the donor’s name on the ‘presidential roll of honour’. There was even an exclusive ‘members only’ Task Force telephone hotline.
Donors, of course, loved it. For just $10 a month this was real value for money. Most of all to encourage the authentic feel of the campaign the fundraisers had produced stationery that was the exact facsimile of the President’s writing paper. Colour printed and embossed, laser personalised and signed it looked exactly as it would had the President himself taken time out from his busy schedule to write a personal note to Elmer E Rosenblum, or whomever, to acknowledge his individual contribution and stress its importance to America.

More than a few of these letters were framed and hung in a prominent place in the family home so that visitors could be easily subjected to an hour or so’S dissertation on Elmer’ 5 sacrifice for his country.

Across the length and breadth of the entire United States, thousands of Republicans took their membership of the President’s Task Force very seriously indeed – and the dollars rolled into the President’s office as a result. Sustained by a brilliant direct marketing campaign of record and reward, the President’s Task Force gave its donors something beyond price – the prestige of practical involvement in something they believed in. As such it simply used the best of technique and technology, plus a forgivable amount of kitsch, to establish the ideal relationship fundraising proposition, an ongoing relationship where both donor and recipient could benefit in equal amounts, at the end of which a clear financial and practical target could be reached.

In relaying the case history of the ‘President’s Task Force’ at the International Fund Raising Workshop in Holland, John Groman of Epsilon Data Management provided an anecdote which summed up the power of the campaign.

Late one evening a motor-cycle patrolman flagged down a speeding motorist on one of America’ 5 interminable inter-state highways. With customary leisurely grace he strolled up to the driver, who appeared to be in something of a hurry, and proceeded to ask him to provide his driving licence and evidence of insurance. Without a word, but inwardly seething at the delay, the driver – it may even have been Elmer E Rosenblum – got out of his car and led the patrolman firmly by the hand round to the back of the car, to the enormous boot (or trunk) of his Cadillac. Still without a sound, but with a gesture of magnificently righteous indignation, he flung his hand dramatically down to point out the large and very official-looking bumper sticker which prominently proclaimed the ‘President’s Task Force’ and indicated that the driver was, in fact, nothing less than a member.

The patrolman was astounded. He stammered a fulsome apology, saluted, swore it wouldn’t happen again and waved his distinguished visitor happily on his way. I don’t know that the patrolman escorted Elmer across the state line with lights flashing and sirens wailing, but I like to think he did.PTF1