Undercover reporter exposes how charity fundraisers in Norwich can be paid nothing for a day’s work

A firm used by the country’s top charities to raise money for good causes has been accused of exploiting young workers by only paying them commission rather than a minimum wage.

Norfolk and Suffolk Promotions, which has been used by charities including Battersea Dogs Home and the National Deaf Children’s Society, claims in job adverts that staff can earn up to £27,000 a year in marketing roles with “uncapped commission only pay”.

But former workers said the company, based on Silver Road in Norwich, uses a business model which can see people work up to 10-hours-a-day without guaranteed pay, as the pay is entirely based on commission.

Paying fundraisers commission goes against the fundraising code of practice unless certain conditions are met and has been criticised by MPs.

But the company claims the workers are self-employed and so it is acting legally by not paying them the minimum wage.

The charities, which this newspaper discovered were using the firm, said they would carry out their own investigations.

The company’s fundraisers are asked to approach people in the street to get them to sign up to charities. They are self-employed meaning they do not have to be paid the minimum wage. It means they can end up going home with no money for a day’s work.

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Their experiences with the company - previously called Iconic Event Strategies until 2014 - have been posted on various online forums and blogs and were also confirmed by our undercover reporter.

The Fundraising Regulator warned that commission-only pay for fundraisers could “encourage high-pressure fundraising tactics”.

The Regulator’s code also states charities should not use commission payments unless all other sources of fundraising have been “explored and exhausted”.

That code does not apply directly to Norfolk and Suffolk Promotions but it does apply to charities who are members of the Fundraising Regulator, which use the firm through an agency.

Norwich South Labour MP Clive Lewis said: “It shows just how far standards have fallen.”

Norwich North Conservative MP Chloe Smith urged charities to bear in mind their “ethical obligations” by ensuring staff earned at least the national minimum wage.

As part of an investigation into the company’s practices, we sent a reporter undercover to apply for a “retail kiosk” assistant role, advertised with a wage at £18,000 to £26,000 a year as well as “uncapped commission only pay”.

Our reporter was offered the self-employed role, along with £600 a month for living expenses on a temporary basis - the equivalent of £7,200 a year and well below the national minimum wage.

The rest of his pay would need to come from commission.

During the initial interview, our reporter was told by the company’s managing director Simon Reynolds that he could be running his own office within 12 months. But the first few weeks would involve face-to-face sales.

Despite the company advertising nine different roles, the majority appear to involve approaching people in the street or in shopping centres.

Workers make money by getting the public to sign up to various schemes, many of them fundraising for charity.

Those who manage to convince someone to sign-up earn between £20 to £30 for each sale. However, those who do not, go home empty-handed after working a long shift and may lose money once travel expenses are taken into account.

University of East Anglia graduate Matthew Walsh said he briefly worked for Norfolk and Suffolk Promotions in August this year.

The 22-year-old said he was drawn in by the offer of graduate management training for a marketing role.

“They make it sound like you are working in a graduate scheme,” he said. “They spoke about how you can make £100,000 in a year. But really it is about getting work out of people for nothing.”

Mr Walsh, who now works for City College Norwich, said he was tasked with getting people to sign up to the National Deaf Children’s Society.

He added: “During my interview I mentioned being uneasy with the commission pay structure and was told by both Simon (Reynolds - the managing director) and my trainer that they sometimes do base salaries for new starters while they find their feet.

“On my first day I asked about this again and was dismissed out of hand because my living costs were apparently too low.”

Mr Lewis added: “With public pressure to show admin costs are as low as possible and massive central government cuts to grants to charities, it’s easy to see why charities have ended up using firms like this. But at the same time, so many people who donate will be rightly outraged that the charities they give to are using firms like this to get in money.”

Ms Smith said: “I would be concerned if people feel exploited by this firm, although I do know from many constituents that flexible work can suit them.

“Charities must make their own decision about the most effective way to raise funds, whilst also bearing in mind their ethical obligations.

“However, commission-only jobs must respect the national minimum wage regulations and employees should be earning at least the national minimum wage for their time.”

•The interview process

After going through an initial interview with the managing director, applicants must then take part in an observation day.

Our undercover reporter was required to sign a legal waiver stating they could not claim against the company for wages for the day.

They are then assigned a mentor and are sent to locations across Norfolk to shadow and observe a sales team.

Our undercover reporter was sent to watch two young marketers attempt to get people signed up to give money to Battersea Dogs and Cats Home at the Range in Costessey.

Their mentor told them that by approaching 70 people each day, an individual marketer can expect to make three sales.

Despite claims that new recruits can expect to run their own office in 12 months, the mentor had been there for two years and was still doing face-to-face sales.

During the interview process, Mr Reynolds listed a number of charities he claims the company works with, including the British Red Cross.

The British Red Cross said they had fundraised in the past through a group called Care2Give which sub-contracted to Norfolk and Suffolk Promotions. They said they had not worked with them since early 2016. Care2Give is currently in liquidation, according to documents at Companies House.

Mr Reynolds said his firm receives its clients through a company Credico.

A Credico spokesman said the firm had not been made aware of “these issues, nor had complaints been raised with them”.

They added: “Credico Marketing take all complaints and queries extremely seriously and have set clear expectations for their supply chain. Companies are indeed vetted prior to commencing trade and they will be investigating the allegations through their internal channels.”

Norfolk and Suffolk Promotions has not responded to our requests for comment.

•What the charities had to say

The National Deaf Children’s Society and Battersea Dogs Home said they employed Norfolk and Suffolk Promotions through an agency called Personal Fundraising Services (PFS).

Both charities said checks were in place to ensure workers get information about their pay. Battersea Dogs Home said it would investigate further.

The National Deaf Children’s Society said: “We work with agencies to make sure that employees are given clear information about their pay and employment status so that they are able to make an informed decision about their work. We recognise that different employment models work for different people and that some people find the flexibility offered by a self-employed role works better for them. We are full members of the Fundraising Regulator who set the rules for how fundraising agencies operate and we require all agencies we work with to abide by these rules.”

A spokesman for the Fundraising Regulator said: “Financial reward alone as an incentive is often a poor motivator for fundraisers as it can encourage high-pressure fundraising tactics rather than lasting relationships with donors.”

It added charities should “carefully consider” the financial benefits commission-based models may provide. PFS did not respond to a request for comment.

•Do you have a story which needs investigating? Email tom.bristow@archant.co.uk or call 01603 77 2834

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