Raising Money in a Recession: The Life of an NYC Canvasser

09/28/2009 12:16 PM |

Sara steps out of her office onto Fifth Avenue. It’s 1:30pm, and she only has half an hour to eat, go to the bank, and get back before her afternoon meeting. Walking briskly, Sara turns the corner, only to lock eyes with a young man in a pale blue t-shirt. He’s holding a clipboard and smiling. A lot.

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.