I was a street canvasser for the Red Cross, and here’s why I quit

I was a street canvasser for the Red Cross, and here’s why I quit

A street canvasser (not the author of this post) plies the trade on Queen Street. (Image: NationalRecruiterPO/YouTube)

“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.