Social Engineering & Charitable Donations

by Rob Poulter


First of all, this post is not about charities or charitable donations. This is about a specific method of soliciting donations which seems to be disturbingly prevalent recently.

The scene is you're walking along, possibly listening to music, talking on the phone or otherwise minding your own business. Some chirpy (usually foreign) 20-something greets you like a long lost friend. Feeling a disconnect, you engage with them to find out what their deal is, hoping to clear up the misunderstanding. Before you can get a word out, you're asked for your name and they immediately go for a handshake.

What follows is an uncomfortable series of questions where you're shoehorned into agreeing with everything that is being said, and ultimately put in a position where if you don't agree to donate to the charity you feel like a monster. Even then, they are "not collecting any money off you now", but instead looking for a commitment to a regular donation via direct debit or credit card. 

If you ask for information that you can take away to read you are told that isn't possible. If you don't want to feel like that monster, you have to make an uninformed decision about giving over financial information and the promise of a recurring payment on the spot. 

Now I don't disagree with seeking recurring payments, I am sure that the amount of money raised is significantly higher than one off donations, since there's a threshold of effort many people are unwilling to cross to cancel a payment, and (this is the part I do disagree with) that threshold is artificially raised by requiring donors to physically write in to cancel a payment. 

In writing this post I wanted to know what to call this process. In IT I would call the trying to get people to hand over financial information based on limited information and appealing to guilt, fear, greed etc social engineering. I did a bit of searching and found an article on a Mumbrella (an Australian advertising website that often has good articles on branding and other ad industry stuff), where they call people who do this "chuggers" (a mashup of "charity" and "mugger") but this comes from the Urban Dictionary, so the odds of being an official term are pretty slim, but on the other hand it is what it feels like.

When I think about this as a tactic, it feels like part of a broader problem: companies are increasingly going for what works instead of what is right for them as a brand or an overall experience. Consider casual gaming, it used to be that you picked up a game and played it for as long as you felt like it, then you put it down until you felt like playing it again. Now you are encouraged via in-game cues to pick it up and play it regardless of whether or not you feel like it, because otherwise you will miss out on exclusive in-game opportunities, or because you need to help friends out who also play the game.