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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.