Most London benches are a bit grim, usually marred by wet leaves and leftover kebabs. Naturally, a much shinier-looking bench caught my attention as I walked near Old Street the other day. 

Upon further inspection, I discovered it was a Cancer Research ‘smart bench’ – one of many installed around the city earlier this year. 

So, what exactly is its aim? Here’s a bit more on Cancer Research’s scheme and why it could be a smart tactic for charities of all kinds.

Turning footfall into fundraising

In February, Cancer Research installed 10 smart benches in the boroughs of Islington and Lewisham to tie-in with World Cancer Day. However, it’s not a time-sensitive scheme, instead forming part of the charity’s fundraising campaign for 2017 – with more benches set to roll out as the year goes on.

The locations have been specifically chosen for being high-footfall areas, meaning that the benches are highly visible to passers-by. 

Each one has integrated contactless technology so that people can donate £2 to the charity simply by tapping their debit card onto the bench.

This type of fundraising has proven to be hugely effective in the past, and in fact, Cancer Research has already used the same technology in store windows.

For people who don’t carry any change – or deliberately avoid charity fundraisers (also known as ‘chuggers’ due to their occasionally pushy tactics) – the technology provides a quick and easy way to impulsively make a one-off donation.

Tapping into technology

The main difference with Cancer Research’s smart benches in comparison to the windows is that, this time, the scheme also taps into a consumer need.

Each bench provides free WiFi as well as a mobile phone charging point – features that could prompt people to stop and sit down even if they do not realise there is a charitable link. That way, despite the benches being solar powered (and therefore free), consumers might naturally want to pay for the trade-off, with donations largely being prompted by the convenience or service they receive. 

The benches do more than just charge technology, also allowing people to discover current environmental conditions, such as noise level and air quality in the wider area.

Changing public perceptions

Another big benefit of the smart benches is that they are designed to be mutually beneficial. Not only do they help the charity raise money, but they also offer something of value to consumers, as well as enhance public spaces in London. While describing them as a ‘place to rest and socialise’ might be a bit of a stretch, everyone likes a nice sit-down don’t they?

As a result, the benches immediately serve as a point of difference, helping to change common perceptions about the role charities play in local communities. Instead of giving spare cash or conversely, raising money from huge fundraising events, it shows consumers that there are more accessible and innovative ways that they can donate. 

Like other examples of contactless fundraising, the value for charities is just as much in the increased visibility (and different contexts), as it is in the monetary gain. Of course, the latter is a huge bonus, but like most marketing campaigns – it’s not the core aim.

Will other charities take heed?

While many charities have already adopted contactless fundraising, there are still barriers to mass adoption.

Interestingly, Barclaycard recently led a trial of contactless donation boxes, partnering with a number of charities including the NSPCC and Barnardos to see whether it would lead to an uplift. While results suggest that it proved successful – with the average donation increasing from £1 to £3 – it’s unlikely that most of the charities involved will be able to afford to replace all their regular boxes with contactless ones in future.

Meanwhile, many charities still believe in the persuasion power of real people, which is lessened with standalone contactless technology. 

Having said that, it is clear that convenience is also a massive drive for consumers, and as examples like Cancer Research show – this means it’s a strategy that could be worth investing in.

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