Sara turns down her gaze and picks up the pace. She starts rummaging through her bag, looking for her phone, her sunglasses—anything to make her look busy.
But it's too late.
“Excuse me, Miss, do you care about needy children?”
“Uhh. Err. Yes, but not right now?”
We've all been in Sara's shoes. Of course we care about needy children, and the environment, and human rights, and most of the other issues being touted by these earnest young people in matching golf shirts: canvassers. It's just that we don't usually have the time to stop, nor perhaps the inclination to give money to a stranger on 17th Street. “I’m not about to hand over cash or my credit card info to a teenager on the street,” said Alejandra Ramos, a magazine editor from Harlem. “Anyone can pick up a clipboard and pretend to be representing a charity.”
Security concerns aside, canvassers can be… how should I put it? A little pushy.
Even in the best economic times, the charitably inclined among us often prefer to choose which causes we support, rather than be pressured to shell out. “You can only give so much, and I prefer to give to causes that are close to my heart,” said Alison Kero, who encounters canvassers frequently while running errands for the concierge service she owns in Manhattan. As much as we all care about needy children, when it comes right down to it, we’re more likely to give money on the fly for a cause we have some personal stake in—breast cancer research if someone we know was diagnosed with the disease, for instance.
Unfortunately, giving for all causes has gone down in this economy, and it’s no mystery why: Money is tight. New York City’s unemployment rate topped 10% this summer—the highest it’s been since 1997—and those of us who do still have jobs aren’t exactly feeling flush. Our retirement plans are battered, our credit card interest rates have skyrocketed. The impulse right now is to scale back our expenses and squirrel away whatever money we can.
What that means, however, is that less money is being donated to the charities canvassers raise money for, at a time when the charities need the cash flow most. According to the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University’s latest Philanthropic Giving Index, the fundraising climate for U.S. charities is the worst it’s been since the Center began conducting the survey over a decade ago. Donations from all sources—individuals, foundations, and federal, state, and local governments—are down. Meanwhile, demand for the services some charities provide is going up. For instance, demand for emergency food assistance has increased by more than 30% in some parts of the country, according to Feeding America, which heads a network of over 200 food banks nationwide.
And it’s not just social service organizations that are feeling the pinch. In some cases, arts and advocacy groups are faring even worse, since their services are sometimes deemed non-essential.
In other words, virtually no nonprofit organization has made it to this point in the recession unscathed.
So what’s a fundraiser to do in this economic climate? Some are responding by amping up their “asks.” I’ve noticed that the canvassers near my office in Union Square have been pulling out all the stops to get people to stop and listen to their spiels, even more so than usual. Over the past several weeks, I’ve had canvassers block the sidewalk with outstretched arms, sing to me, and ask, “How’s the weather up there?” (I’m tall, but come on.)
I’m not the only one who’s had these experiences. “One remarked on my posterior,” said Angelita Paniagua, a former canvasser herself from Brooklyn. She’s also witnessed a canvasser jump in front of a group of attractive young ladies and launch into ZZ Top’s "She’s Got Legs." “Complete with guitar solo,” she noted.
Though sometimes amusing, getting the hard sell can obviously be off-putting. However, to understand why canvassers go to such great lengths to elicit donations, you need to understand a little about the business of canvassing itself.
Most canvassers are not volunteers. In fact, the vast majority of the charity canvassers you see in New York City are employed by a handful of grassroots fundraising organizations, like the Fund for the Public Interest or Dialogue Direct, which have been hired by charities—from the ACLU to Greenpeace to the Sierra Club—to collect donations from individuals on the street.
Most canvassers have responded to Craigslist posts that advertised “$600-$1000 per week” to “help save the environment” or “make a difference in a child’s life.” The promise of flexible hours, easy pay, and the opportunity to do some good each year attracts scores of college students and other New Yorkers looking for a paycheck.
But the work ain’t easy. As a canvasser, you’re on your feet all day, having to constantly project perkiness and come up with creative things to say. At best, you’ll be ignored by the majority of people who walk by, at worst, yelled at and otherwise verbally abused.
As if enduring a steady stream of rejection and outright vitriol weren’t enough, you might also be disappointed to learn that your paychecks are not always as fat as the job board ads would lead you to believe. Canvassers are generally paid some combination of an hourly rate and a commission based on how many donations they collect in a given day, plus are expected to meet a daily quota. Some people are able to make good money canvassing, but for many it’s difficult to make a living wage. “I was able to just barely scrape by,” said Laura Perna, another former New York City canvasser. “But some people made a lot of money. It is possible to do that if you have the right personality. In general though, you couldn’t live large.”
Indeed, one’s personality seems to have nearly everything to do with whether he or she will be an effective canvasser. Naturally loud, affable, and highly energetic people are going to be able to stop the most people, and therefore collect the most donations. So the more outrageous, the better. “You definitely are encouraged to get people’s attention by being silly or just saying anything that will make people look at you,” said Perna. “But within reason,” she was quick to add. “The idea is to get people to talk to you. You want to get their attention but not frighten them.”
That’s a difficult balancing act for many people. Perhaps unsurprisingly, most canvassers quit within a week of starting the job.
Which brings me back to the economy. When times are tough, as they are more often than not these days, asking for money becomes an act of desperation for canvassers who are themselves sorely in need of a paycheck. The fewer people who are able to stop and donate, the more outrageous canvassers will get. And the more outrageous canvassers get? The less willing people will be to stop and donate.
Although you may find their techniques distasteful, street canvassers for charities probably deserve a little respect these days. Not only are they just trying to do their job—they're trying to do that job in an economic environment that has been extremely unkind both to them and to the charities they work for.
Also, some would argue that their job has real societal value. Jon Goldin-Dubois, Executive Vice President of Common Cause, a nonprofit advocacy organization, contends in a video on the Fund for the Public Interest website that “canvassing is one of the purest forms of direct democracy.” Young people who sign up to be canvassers are taught valuable lessons about civic engagement and grassroots politics, which they carry into adulthood, while the pedestrians they target for donations are introduced to new issues and empowered by being able to take action on causes they care about.
And then there are the charities themselves, which receive some much-needed cash, but even more importantly, they get out of the deal contact information for individuals who are interested enough in their cause to donate to it—potential lifelong supporters! Cultivating longtime donors is essential to the sustainability of almost any charity. So the next time you wonder what good a $5 donation could possibly do help save the planet, remember: For the charity, it’s less about your initial $5 donation and more about the $5 you might be willing give each week or month for the next decade.
Yes, there are other, and one could argue more effective, ways to make a difference in the world. But at the end of the day, is the presence of canvassers on the sidewalk all that bad? The annoying ones can be, well, really annoying. But the ones who are good at their job—the affable types who bring in a lot of donations—can actually help keep charities afloat that right now are struggling just to keep on the lights.
That helps explain why canvassing is still a fulfilling line of work for many people, despite how difficult it can be to succeed. “If you’re having a bad day, it really drags you down,” said Perna. “But if you’re having a great day it can be really exhilarating—you feel like you’re reaching people, connecting with them to achieve a common goal. The fact that you can stand on the street and find random New Yorkers who feel the same way you do is totally amazing, and the energy you get from that is great.”
And hey. You could never call the job boring.