I was a street canvasser for the Red Cross, and here’s why I quit
“Sir, you brought me a drink! That’s so kind. What do you know about the Red Cross?” It was my second day pounding pavement for a fundraising company contracted by the Red Cross, and I’d waylaid a businessman who was carrying two fountain sodas. “Oh, you’re thirsty? Here you go!” He pushed one of the drinks into my hands before chortling and walking away. I gaped after him, speechless—the one thing that donor recruiters like me are never supposed to be. If no pedestrian was holding a drink, I’d look for someone wearing red, and declare that their scarlet-striped tie meant they were fated to chat with me about the Red Cross. Or I’d tell a texter not to worry, that I’d gotten his message and was ready to talk about donations. Stopping people (the recruiter slang for it was “street,” as in “Add more energy to your street”) is the first step and conversation the second in a face-to-face fundraiser’s snag-a-donor plan, and I learned quickly that “A moment for the Red Cross, ma’am?” is a terrible pick-up line. If nobody will talk to you, nobody will donate. I signed my first donor, a middle-aged woman at Bloor and Spadina on her way to an appointment, after fawning over her red umbrella and before I’d finished even half my speech.
This decisiveness was the norm among donors: during one particularly unsuccessful day in the financial district, my co-worker and I had been walking up and down the same block for an hour when a guy smoking at the edge of the sidewalk suggested that I ask him to donate. “Apologies for neglecting you, sir,” I joked. “Are you interested in supporting the Red Cross on a monthly basis?” He said that he was, and only wanted to know if $20 would be an okay amount. I learned fast that passersby who want to donate will, and that it’s a waste of time and energy to convince the hesitant ones to part with their money; they’re much more likely to cancel their donation the next month. Like a laid-back colleague who spent two months fundraising for Amnesty International and CAMH would tell me, “I’m passionate about not making people passionate about things they don’t care about.”
That holds true across the city, although in each neighbourhood, residents say “no” differently. Ever polite, the well-heeled parents in the Bloor West Village stroller derby intently listen to our patter, then reply that they’ve already decided on their charitable contributions for the year, but “thanks so much for the information!” Bay Street suits don’t have time for that. They’re hurrying to a meeting with an important client and ask us to “please get out of the way.” Around Yonge-Dundas Square, too many passersby insist that they understand neither English nor French. Students, ambling towards summer classes at U of T or George Brown, were always the most generous, since many want to donate to charity but few have decided to support any particular one. They’re genuinely excited to start sharing some of their limited funds with cholera victims.
Recruiters are often students or recent grads as well, but ours can be a less than pleasant experience. Many don’t make it through their six-week contracts. At the end of our first day on the streets, one of the eight newbies on my team quit. A week later, two more recruiters were gone. Street fundraising is a tough job, and having to apply sunscreen constantly or smile through the rain is the least of it. Even if everyone politely declines to donate, endless hours of rejection still bruise your ego. But some aren’t even polite: We’re spat on and yelled at for being “scam artists.” I’ve deflected many a religious conversion, and was hit on by a guy who guessed I had a boyfriend and then apologized for “stepping on another man’s territory.” But even worse is the guilt. Most recruiter positions now pay hourly, with no commission and no bonuses, the fall-out of a 2007 scandal that caught SickKids and World Vision fundraisers twisting the truth in order to get more donors. Now, new fundraisers earn about $100 a day, regardless of results, which means that, on a bad day, you’re always aware that an international charity is losing money because they hired you. When I quit with four days left in my contract, I didn’t feel bad: that’s $400 more going to someone who really needs it. Never before has quitting something felt so charitable.
35 thoughts on “I was a street canvasser for the Red Cross, and here’s why I quit”
I work downtown and every day, and I mean every day these pan handlers get in my way, every day I have to have one follow me, trying to start up a conversation about this or that, when I politely say no thanks, or I am not interested, some of them get even more aggressive with their sales pitches. I would never ever ever give any of my information on the street. I also don’t like how they try to follow you at times, or stand in my way blocking me as I am walking.
I was walking along King one day and saw a couple of these people up ahead. With my big headphones on as usual I avoided eye contact until the last minute and then was ready to smile and say “no thanks” as I usually do. But instead, one of the women working came up to me as if to ask me to donate, and instead yelled, “I love it when people with big headphones ignore me!” right in my face. Well, I love it when people on the street use manipulative “friendly” tactics to harass me in the name of charity. I make it pretty clear that I don’t want to be bothered when I’m out but I’m at least pleasant to these people since I understand they have a job to do, even if I find them incredibly annoying. More than once they’ve deliberately ignored my signals that I want to be left alone, getting in my way or interrupting me. I hate this tactic and I wish it would stop.
Perhaps these charities should look to the UK university “rag raids” initiative that take place throughout the UK university school year. Generally they are organized by the Student Unions at the universities. First year students (“freshers” as they are called in the UK) are encouraged to participate (and compete against other universities) in the various “raids” in different cities/towns throughout the UK to raise funds for charity. Most raids have a costumed theme. Students are transported by bus (on a Saturday…free of charge…and fully costumed) to a city where they are given buckets and asked to dance around and collect money. The idea is to have fun and meet some new people from your university while raising money for a good cause. The more ridiculous you look, the better! The students are well received by the public who are curious as to what they are doing and are more than willing to part with their small change (and even notes) for such joyous youth. The bottom line, no one is backed into a corner and it brings a smile to the faces of all involved…including the donors. At the end of the academic year, the university that raises the most money is honoured. And don’t kid yourself, the amounts raised by EACH university are in the tens of thousands of pounds (currency) per year. Multiply that by scores of universities across the country and you have raised hundreds of thousands! Charities that want to be considered ‘apply’ to the various rag raid organizers at the beginning of each year. It’s a win, win situation all around in which students are monitored and safe while fundraising!
These people are the worst. If I want to donate, I would do it online. Never on the street. I often cross the street to avoid them.
One of the Sick Kids’ canvassers first said “Hey you, come talk to me!” and when I said “Sorry, I don’t have time” she said “So you don’t care about dying children?” I mean, really? This is ridiculous. And there are WAY too many of them. Becase I Am A Girl, Amnesty International, Sick Kids, Greenpeace.. jeez! These charities can’t possibly be making much from these canvassers; what a waste of time.
You can tell it’s springtime when one has to walk the gauntlet of these aggravating corporate beggers. I particularly dislike the ubiquitous “because I’m a girl” street panhandlers, as if that name isn’t enough to turn a person off on its own.
Well obviously it does work because they continue to do it. I don’t see what the big deal is. You are harassed by advertising every moment in your life – on the subway, on your TV, on your computer, at the doctor’s office, on your cereal box, on your own clothes… So why does this bother you? Hmmmm…
I know! Maybe because you actually feel bad deep down inside that you are ignoring somebody raising money for a good cause – especially if you just came out of a mall with $500 worth of new clothes.
There are so many scammers that I would not stop and talk to anyone about raising money. I donate online…
Although I understand the realities of having to spend some money to find new donors (I spent 6 years on the board of the Toronto PWA Foundation – chasing grants and donations is literally a full time job(s) in any sizeable charity), something about the concept of paying people to stand on the street stopping/pestering/accosting busy pedestrians has always made me uncomfortable.
I think there are more effective and less annoying ways of raising awareness and developing a loyal donor base.
Subway ads and cereal boxes don’t have the very human factor of making you feel guilty for telling someone to their face that you can’t / won’t donate to their particular worthy cause.
If people want to donate they will. If they do not, they won’t but guilting people into donating only insures that the next time they see or hear from your organization they run. there is hardly an hour in any day that the average person is not being asked to pledge for a walk, run, cure, miricle, or something else. Give blood or give money. Give clothing or household items. Everything from home, to work to church is a constant pull at you for you few dollars while telling you that others are dying and in need.
My favorite is when they call for a donation and you say you can not afford to give at this time and they say “That is okay, instead of a donation of $200 I will just write you down for a small donation of $100 dollars!
Or the mail outs from the hospitals who gauge you to death in parking fees in order to see your Specialist or to have a cancer treatment, they start off asking you for $500 or more! Try finding the block in that mail out where you can write your own ammount in. They tell you how much to donate.
Yet when a local senior was ill and I contacted several charities for help for her they all stated clearly that they were not there for the individual, they are there for research or public education as a whole.
So which canvassing company do you work for JK? To suggest that an ad on a cereal box is even remotely similar to a canvasser harrassing you is idiotic.
I see a lot of whinging without much consideration here.
As JK said, if it didn’t bring in money for the charitable organization – they wouldn’t do it. Having worked in the charitable sector for a fair few years now, even a moderately unsuccessful face-to-face campaign is still profitable for the organization and thus, for the causes it supports. You also have to consider that when a new donor is acquired, even if they cancel fairly early on, the organization can now appeal to them and the organization is front of their mind for future emergencies, gifts etc.
The vitriol is also disgusting. Pan-handlers? Really? The definition of panhandle is ‘beg in the street’. The canvasser’s job is to get people to give something to a cause greater than themselves that without street canvassers, people might never have heard of. I’m very sorry that the world is capitalist and that donations, like everything else in Canada, need to be solicited.
Let’s also consider the alternatives to acquire new donors for charity.
Mail? Outdated. Would you read a mailing from a charity you haven’t supported and seriously consider giving to it? I don’t think so. No, most people would either throw it in the recycling bin without opening it or open it and get angry saying ‘how did they get my name!!!’. So mail isn’t the answer.
Email? Good luck distinguishing yourself from all the other unsolicited emails people get. Even if you get by the spam filter, there’s a hyper-limited chance that someone will read and then give based on that. Digital donations (those raised from online ads, email and social media) still make up, in some organizations, less than 10% of the total donations they receive.
Television? Summarize your charity in 15 seconds while paying millions of dollars so that it isn’t running at 4 o’clock in the morning. Then deal with the complaints that you’re exploiting images of children in need. Is that a solution or a bigger problem?
So I get it, they’re persistent and they want you to give. It can be annoying, they can be annoying. But a bit of perspective on the purpose they serve wouldn’t go amiss here. They aren’t panhandlers. For every 25 people that walk by and ignore them there is one person who genuinely didn’t know about the organization who now, even if they don’t give right away, knows that a cause exists where before they did not.
I give what little money I can to Amnesty International, as it is close to my heart. When I tell canvassers this on the street, I have never had anyone make me feel guilty or get aggressive with me. Maybe I’m just lucky, or maybe people just appreciate politeness and honesty rather than abruptness or faking ignorance.
Yes, canvassers can be annoying, but they are human beings doing a job to pay the bills. What makes them worse than the bank manager that harasses you for upgrades at every appointment?
I find it terribly unfair to write off all canvassers simply by the poor actions of a few of them. Yes, I did used to be a canvasser so perhaps I’m slightly biased, but I was also fired from the job for not hitting my weekly goals. This is because I genuinely REFUSED to take money from those who were unable, or uncomfortable doing it. I always allowed them an out since personally, I struggle with saying no on a frequent basis. There are very few canvassers that play the guilt game in my experience, and most people will THANK US profusely for giving them an opportunity to help.
Are we in your way? Yes. Are we annoying? Yes. If you’re in a bad mood, might we catalyze it simply by being there? Yes. Is it worth it? Yes.
The company I worked for investigated heavily into the charities we were working with to make sure that their admin overheads were satisfiable, and that they were indeed making consistent progress to those less fortunate – hence why we dropped contracts with World Vision, etc.
We ARE paid on an hourly basis, true; in large part for the reasons stated in the article. When it starts being for personal gain, it’s considerably less honourable of a thing to do. However, this is why we are held to monetary goals. If we don’t raise a specific amount per day, we will lose our job.
And again, the company I worked for – who covers most of the downtown Because I Am A Girl, Amnesty, CAMH, Doctors Without Borders, UNHCR, etc., etc – has never in history caused a charity to work money.
The reason canvassers are held to goals (what we balance out to a 4-5 “PPH”) is because when we make contracts with these charities, we hold ourselves to standards. If we don’t meet our targets, we will refund the charity in part because everyone working for it truly believes in the cause.
On top of that, face to face fundraising has record high levels of donor retention – meaning that people will stay on for years after meeting us. When a charity hires us, it ENSURES that their income either multiplies exponentially, or at the very least, they break even with our refund if we are unsuccessful.
If you wish to donate online? Fine. Do it. I beg you, help out whatever way you can – whether it’s 8 bucks monthly, 100 dollars today and then again next Christmas. Give what you can, and if you can’t, don’t. But don’t hate canvassers when we are markedly more successful than ad campaigns and mail-outs. At the same time, I heavily cherish the opportunities I had to make human connections with people, even if I knew from the start that they were unable to donate. I met people who had been affected by Typhoon Haiyan, people who were affected by the Sierra Leone civil war and told me flatly they wouldn’t be ALIVE if it weren’t for the combined help of MSF and UNHCR.
On top of all this, virtually everyone I work with cares PASSIONATELY about the causes we work for. Yes, the pay is alright, particularly if you’ve been working there 12 months plus. But I have a lavish resumé, I have job opportunities, and I CHOSE to stand in the cold 8 hours a day all winter, wearing 4 pairs of pants as my face literally dripped with the worst kind of wet slushy snow because we freaking care. Any of us could be inside working anywhere, and we choose this. It matters.
You are more than welcome to walk right on past us and stick your middle finger in the air while doing so. But to call us panhandlers is ignorance at it’s finest. I am so, so sorry if our presence slows your daily walking commute by ten seconds; but if you ever stopped and took the time to speak with us and CONFRONT us about what you THINK goes on in our organizations, you’d realize that it’s worth it.
Sincerely, a person who was recently fired and has every reason to be entirely bitter, but knows better.
I work in fundraising, keep in mind that when this author says fundraisers are paid by the hour it’s to speak with passionate donors who will give for a long time, most stay on for about 5 years which makes a days wage more than worthwhile.
Also, it’s not legal to pay someone fundraising for nonprofit commission based on the guidelines set out by Imagine. There’s a reason that guideline is there.
It’s an investment charities would not make to a third party fundraising company if it wasn’t worthwhile. They keep doing it for a reason – it’s important and it works.
If you want to “help the children” that’s fine, but don’t be a confrontational jackass in the process. End of story. Stop validating this obnoxious behavior with your pious “vitriol is disgusting” diatribes when you know full well that if the situation was reversed you’d be equally annoyed. How often do you defend Jehovah Witness canvassers? They are trying to save you from eternal damnation, won’t someone think of the children?
How much did your computer cost? If only you diverted that money to saving the children. Wow you must feel AWFUL.
They appreciate politeness and honesty? You know what I appreciate – get out of my face and stop talking to me.
Sick kids has some questionable fundraising tactics too. I had a canvasser knock door to door in my building (against our rules) to raise funds. When I said I was busy, he looked behind me into my apartment and said “doing WHAT exactly?” in a sarcastic tone. I said I wasn’t interested and he said “ok so you aren’t interested in saving a child’s life?” at that point I just closed the door. Later on me and my neighbors found a star (written with blue pen) on the wall next to all the doors of the people who were home/answered.
I do respect the doctors/nurses/staff at the sick kids hospital though, its too bad these fundraising tactics make their organisation look bad.
Wow A+ indoctrination on this one.
Charities should really consider what happens with
each of these interactions between their canvassers and the general
public, because we see these people as representatives of their
organization and it can really leave a negative impression, and cause
people to donate elsewhere. Having an experience like many of the ones
mentioned here hurts their brand on a personal level.
I realize the need for charities to do street canvassing, but they need to learn to do it in a more respectful way and not resort to aggressive tactics like this. I had a similar experience in Bloor West Village with Plan Canada where the canvasser began to accuse us of being horrible, selfish people and although I’d never done it before this was upsetting enough for me to write to the BIA, our local councilor, and Plan Canada. When a position in my field opened up at Plan Canada, my first thought was “I’d never work there.” I just don’t think the charities realize the damage that is happening from poorly trained canvassers.
Is there really a NEED for street canvassing?
“I learned fast that passersby who want to donate will, and that it’s a waste of time and energy to convince the hesitant ones to part with their money; they’re much more likely to cancel their donation the next month.”
Sounds to me like people who want to donate will, whether it be on the street or online. Harassing people who are on their way somewhere else is a waste of everybody’s time, since, as the writer says, they’re not making any conversions out there.
Ryan sounds like one of the marketing sluggos who would implement a “strategic initiative” like this at his organization in order to justify his job. The street hustler gigs aren’t even one step above telemarketing, and every bit as annoying. And no, making ONE person aware of a cause they didn’t know existed is NOT worth the annoyance to hundreds if not thousands of passers-by who know it exists but don’t care to have it thrown in their faces by artificially cheery but increasingly pushy “representatives”. I actively AVOID donating to organizations that I know from experiences use these methods to hustle money. The fact that this concept actually lends itself to all manner of fraud is probably the biggest reason why eager-beaver marketing “experts” should think twice about implementing it. After all, how hard is it to make a fake badge, buy a brightly coloured vest (and a lanyard for the badge), hold a clipboard with some mocked up documents and spend an afternoon targeting marks on a busy public street? Not very.
Yes, because the only thing that would get me to donate money to a charity MORE than an aggressive idiot with a clipboard is an aggressive idiot in a costume. Seriously?
I think you should report it to the Sick Kids CEO/President. These people in their ivory towers, getting compensated extremely well, need to hear how the reputation of the hospital is sullied because of these kinds of events.
I would never give a donation to someone on the street claiming to represent a charity and I would not give to someone I don`t personally know at my door asking for a donation to a charity.
Great point, Rex!
Rex’s Debating 101: Insults and general lack of any meaningful argument.
Where is your evidence of all this fraud you claim there is? Your position is ‘I don’t like being momentarily inconvenienced’ just like every other irrationally angry person on this thread and don’t make it out to be anything but that.
Your post is a whine, not an argument.
You’re the whiner, Ryan, and what’s worse, you defend this AGGRAVATING practice as if it’s better simply because it’s not mail, email or television, which YOU think are so much less effective because, I don’t know, they don’t involve other humans aggressively getting in our faces?
Then again, you think it’s worthwhile if just one person out of every 25 learns about a charity they didn’t know existed before (even though it’s unlikely ANYONE doesn’t know about the charities that use these panhandlers because you can’t fucking avoid them), whether or not they make a donation. Sadly, there are clearly others within these organizations who think such pathetic returns (if any) justify the expense behind these pushy beggars.
Anyway, back to your street corner, sonny.
Tony, you’re not wrong!
My position was never ‘They aren’t annoying, what are you guys talking about?!?!’
In fact, I said:
“So I get it, they’re persistent and they want you to give. It can be annoying, they can be annoying.”
I’m just saying it is a necessary practice to acquire donors, that it does work, and that they’re not all these ‘panhandlers’ your lot make them out to be.
As an aside to the Jehovah thing: I always see them at their booths with their fliers just kind of sitting there; putting in the time for good ol’ God. I haven’t ever spoken to them, I have only once seen someone talking to them (likely a fellow Jehovah). Passive canvassing also doesn’t work. There are no easy solutions.
Here’s the problem, Rex:
Everything you’re saying is through your “What’s best for Rex” lens.
I agree with you, it would obviously be better for Rex not to be canvassed because Rex obviously doesn’t like being canvassed. Rex gets angry when he even thinks about canvassing and can’t see that he’s not being logical.
I am telling you that it makes charities money because I know. It is a fact, not my opinion. Call around and ask. So you can say things like ‘such pathetic returns (if any)’ but that’s just your mind rejecting truth in favour of ‘I don’t like it so it doesn’t work’.
I also don’t appreciate the downgrade. A minute ago I was a cool marketing sluggo (?) and now I’m a street canvasser? What gives?
Nice, glad to see someone else on the rational argument side of this.
The longer people know you, and realize you’re drinking the Kool-Aid, the downgrade becomes inevitable, really . . .
annoying all the way and every time
Been a face to face marketing rep for over a year and a half done 3 of 6 forms of marketings including streets there are plenty of ways of getting someone who’s headed somewhere to stop and give 30 seconds to listen or 5 min to sign up to stop without using pressure tactics or adding un needed guilt to someones day, the point of being a fundraiser is to empower people and give them a personal experience with donating as for fake forms most companies have switched to tablets or iPads to cut back paper costs and help the environment and pretty much every company has to make confirmation calls which the donor must complete to validate the rep, donor and ensure the charitys integrity was upheld during the interaction. As for inside buildings I’ve always had signed permission from the supers property management or res manager to enter and canvass as tenant safety is a major issue in Toronto so everyone feels more comfortable that photo copy’s of rep badges are in their office in case any miss understandings occur. Charity’s use us because it gives the best return on their investment out of major marketing strategies. And I will continue to donate to every charity I represent and have in the past and help others do the same with the thought every night when I go to sleep that more children are being saved in this world because of these amazing organizations and the work we do to help them.
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