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A few days ago, in Cannock town centre, I was asked to stop by a street fundraiser. I looked back at her, and said: ‘No, sorry; thank you, cheers.’; as if I could help the fact that I had not stopped and talked if I accompanied the refusal with polite words.

Whenever I see a street fundraiser my head fills my knowledge of all the techniques and tenacity which these people will employ to get someone to stay. I could have shared my excuses, but I knew that she would have answers for all of them — valid answers. She looked back, maybe recognising that I knew what she had been taught, said ‘OK’ and departed. The reality is that I was a street fundraiser; I used to be one of them.

18/VII/11 — I’m sitting on a window-ledge at the far end of a corridor on the fifth floor of the building opposite the ‘Custard Factory’, Digbeth, Birmingham. Directly opposite me, down the corridor, is my company’s office. In there as I write is a friend of mine, whose job is being discussed. My Boss steps out and calls me in.

That was me on the day that I was fired from my first and shortest job. I can’t say that I performed the task which I was given particularly well, nor could it be said that I was given all that much time to prove myself. Nevertheless, I was a charity fundraiser, and our wages are paid with ‘Charity’s money’; a phrase with the same tone as ‘Taxpayer dollars’.

As a fundraiser of my type — for those who don’t know the precise details — I was expected to stand on the street and ask people to stop. I was then to explain to them what it is that the charity in question does and to ask if they would like to sign up for a regular donation. In terms of the street hierarchy, we are slightly below the buskers, and somewhat above the people who stand on the street asking pedestrians to make personal injury claims. It is a job of contradictions and antagonisms.

18/VII/11 11:45 — Writing on the train from Birmingham New Street to Longbridge. My Boss brought me into the modest office — I could tell that it was time for business, because rather than the thick rimmed comic glasses which he wears on the street, he was wearing thin metal rimmed glasses; his firing-glasses. He told me that it was because of my lack of aptitude rather than a bad attitude that he had to sack me after one day of work. We shook hands and I left. When I exited the building my fellow layoff was waiting for me, so we has coffee. Muffins, coffee, good company and a conversation about Tarrantino films. A nice send-off for my one day of work, and a welcome party for my return to the ranks of the semi-employed. Permissum bonus vicis susipio.

I was sitting in the living room of the small house in Rednal, a suburb of Birmingham, applying for a job (which, I would discover later, was based in Northern Ireland) and my mobile rang. The caller announced that they were from another fundraising company, one for which, amusingly, I had applied before I aimed for the job with the former company. We understand that it’s taken a while for us to get back to you, she said, would you still be interested in an interview? I considered the facts for a moment — should it be worth giving it another go? maybe they would give me time to adapt.

25/VII/11 — Fundraising training time. This morning it was clear, when standing at the bus stop, that there was some serious congestion going on, the street was a world of red lights. I asked my bus stop amiga whether this was normal traffic and she agreed that there was probably something amiss. When a bus managed to approach, we boarded, and before I had finished saying where I wanted to go the bus driver monosyllabled: one-eighty. When I brandished a five pound note he said: don’t do change. Who doesn’t do change?! So I asked: Could I see if one of the commuters could do me change?, he nodded, so I strode to the back; This may sound like an impertinent question, but can anyone help me with some change for this? — shaking heads — To the bus driver: Can I owe?; No worries mate, just ride. The bus was moving at about 1/10th of walking pace; I sat it out for about 10 minutes until we were outside the train station. So I rose and walked to the bus driver; Can I get off please? The road ahead was still congested, but by way of a reply he nodded towards a point in the distance — ? — Oh, the bus stop. So I waited at the cab and then got entangled in the door as it opened when the bus came to a halt. I then jogged past some very polite cars, through a corridor which winds along the building site and to Longbridge station.

The train journey was as standard and I got into town a little earlier than I needed to be so I picked a bench and started writing. I then noticed the straw hat which heralded my old Boss. He approached with a team of strangers and chose to give them a pep talk directly behind me. At one point he said: Oliver! Stand up! I turned round as one does on these occasions, he was talking to someone else.

When it was time I left and walked to the Britannia Hotel, which has its entrance in an alley way; ‘Union Passage’, and met my new colleagues there.

During a break on the training day, the four new additions and our leader were standing on the modest balcony which accompanies the conference room which we were using. We looked down from what I think was the seventh floor, upon the people making use of the street below. That side of the hotel faces New Street, and the tops of the buildings, in their grimy modernism, acquired a beautiful demeanour. To my right was our supervisor, and today, our coach. She’s stood, smoking a cigarette — she still holds the award for the being best dressed woman whom I have ever met.

On one occasion I was having a very bad morning, it was the day after the Birmingham riots, and I remember her prowess in hiding her frustration with me. Can you imagine it? People with positions like hers are responsible for organising the fundraisers, and therefore how quickly the charity can get the money which they need, I must have been great fun.

When we had finished our training, we were sent onto the street to have our first go (or my second). We were handed our mandatory badges, clipboards and T-shirts, and walked out of the hotel, to the Bullring and round the corner onto High Street. Venturing onto High Street as a fundraiser for the first time is imposing — the thoroughfare is wide. And it’s hard to describe what it is like to arrive in the middle, greeted by a veteran; a little like standing in a river, or in a road.

There was, in the company, an employee whose job was to walk around the area in which we were fundraising to see if we were doing anything wrong and to advise. He was an ex-surfer, which meant sun-bleached hair, trainers and those beady-necklaces. He had the amusing and sometimes irritating habit of, while one was fundraising, coming over to watch. This meant that I would bid a member of the public goodbye and turn round to see him leaning on a phone-box watching me with a pensive expression.

The team leaders with whom I worked are some of the most exemplary people who I have met. They are the fundraising sergeants; before we head for the street they would talk to us, I don’t mean some kind of showy pep-talk; they would just talk over what was to be done. They performed the role of a tutor, watching and talking and perfecting their fundraisers’ skills. In addition, and importantly, at points when I had almost no patience with humanity left, they would come and act as an auxiliary, providing the patience which I lacked so that I could continue.

~The Street~

Fundraising is hard; in that it combines a tight and fine set of skills with the great opaque unknown of the person on the street — like roulette crossed with golf. One can prepare as much as one wants in terms of knowledge of the charity and persuasive arguments, but it is the way in which the subject interprets these factors which is the decider, and until one meets them, it’s a known unknown.

I have said that fundraising is a world of antagonisms — fundraising is euphoria at the same time as depression, strife at the same time as Zen, pride at the same time as reticence. Before I was a fundraiser I would either want time to go slower or faster. I would either be in a dreary lesson at school, or a tiresome journey and want time to advance; or would be in enjoying myself or experiencing a dear and treasured moment and would want time to pass more slowly. As an employee, fundraisers have targets — a given number of contact details or direct debits (depending on the company), so one wants as much time as is possible. At the same time, the work is hard, and as a fundraiser I would covet the breaks and the end of the working day. Therefore, I wanted time to run more slowly, but at the same time I wanted time to run more quickly — I said on one occasion that love and hate do not combine to form indifference; and it was with a similar feeling that I would observe the hands on my watch advance.

This job enabled me to pass between two poles of feeling in a single day. Days, with the second company for which I worked, are split into three sessions, with breaks in between — ‘You want to smash it in the first session, and then you’re made for the rest of the day.’, one of my colleagues said often. My target during my second week was to get twenty leads in a day (a very modest number, the case only because I was new). In the morning session I got two leads — the head fills with thoughts like: ‘I am wasting the charity’s money.’ ‘I am going to lose my job.’. In the next session I was able to make eight leads, and then in the last session, ten. When I made my target I knew that I was generating valuable funds for charity and could have skipped among the pedestrians.

The trouble with me in terms of this job was that I was firstly, too tense, and secondly, too polite. The street is a scary place. Tragically, one of the main ways in which I would be able to loose my tension was to become resolved to my failure. I would score an abysmal number of leads in the first session, and in the second, when I was planning how I should act after I lost my job, I would score well.

The street is also a varied place. One can stop a person at random and find that they will understand the charity’s mission and want to make a contribution; another person who looks to be similar, may explode. On one occasion I stopped a man, and he asked whether the charity which I was representing was secular, so a told him how the organisation does not discriminate along religious lines and does not proselytise. It transpired that he was a Gideon, he told me about his dedication to distributing Bibles, and how my charity would, therefore, not do.

*    *    *

The air was warm but not close as I stepped out into it from the office, turning the corner and strolling down Union Street. I hadn’t had a particularly productive day at work, especially with the riots stealing my concentration; Tottenham is a smoking hulk, and they say that more cities will suffer as the week progresses. People around me showed the usual eagerness to get home and a small breeze ruffled my clothes as I rounded the corner onto High Street, joining the crowd.

There was a young man standing maybe ten metres from the corner, he was of average height, wearing jeans, a T-shirt bearing the name of a charity — a fundraiser, heavens! — though this one also carried a leather satchel over which he had draped a purple velvet jacket. He ran his hand through a quiff of hair as he turned his head in a slow arc, like a sentry, whilst walking in no particular direction.

His eyes rested on me when I was five metres away, he smiled one-sidedly then looked straight into my eyes. ‘Excuse me’ he spoke in a Berkshire accent, ‘I know that you’re in a hurry to get home, but could I have a few moments of your time to talk about a charity?’ I considered, I was intrigued, and it is so hard to decline these folks. ‘OK, I said, but I do have a train to catch.’.

The young man then proceeded to educate me on the charity which he was representing, he made politician gestures at the same time as holding a clip-board. As he spoke I realised that he was quite tense, even worried about what I was going to say, he cocked his head a little too much.

When he finished explaining the cause, he asked for some contact details to solicit donations, but I realised that I couldn’t afford to make any more commitments to charity. He asked if I would reconsider, but I said that I had decided, so he beamed at me, said goodbye and that I should have a good afternoon.

*    *    *

~The Ethics of It~

I’ve heard many say that street fundraising shouldn’t be done, for a number of reasons. I’m not saying that the case is clear, but I don’t think that any of the reasons which are cited carry all that much by way of persuasiveness.

One of the first reasons which people cite is that fundraisers are very often, but not always (some charities have their own fundraisers), hired by private companies to do their activities, so that the private companies make a profit using the charity’s money. While some people also have a problem with the fact that the street fundraisers are paid.

The relationship between the company and the charity is a precise one; rather than the company getting a certain percentage of the money which they raise for the charity, the arrangement is a transaction. The charity will pay the company a given fee, and in return, the company will provide them with an agreed number of direct debits. There will always be a net return for the charity, although clearly the process can’t run indefinitely. This works in the same way as any other transaction, in that an organisation or individual will pay money for a product or service; in the case of fundraising, the service is gathering direct debits. It works in the same way as the charity would pay a net making company for nets, on which that company would make a profit; with street fundraising, the charity gets direct debits rather than nets.

The argument over whether the fundraisers should get paid is a similar one. However, people may be surprised that street fundraisers are paid, because of the British law which states that someone who is making a collection with a bucket must be a volunteer; the need for this rule is clear, that the public need to know that the contents of the bucket will go to the charity. The case is different for street fundraisers, who are obliged to state that they are paid. In addition, the direct debit will go, in its entirety, to the charity.

In as much as the employees of other companies who provide products and services to charitable organisations should also be paid, there is no reason why the same shouldn’t be the case for fundraisers. It is not the case, as someone put it crudely, that: ‘they put their hands into the donations’; as was discussed before — the fundraisers do not get their money from the charity, they get it from the company, the company will always give the charity the number of direct debits for which they paid, and if it takes longer than expected, the company will make a lesser profit.

Another argument is that fundraisers corner people while they are trying to go somewhere and put pressure on them, making them feel guilty. Think of it in this manner: A certain person may get asked to stop by a fundraiser on their way to or from work on a particular day, meaning, for example, four minutes of persuasion. I can’t make any judgements about the private circumstances of the people who I stopped, but the people who the charities represented generally didn’t have jobs like the one from which the person in question is walking home, or didn’t have homes, or hadn’t seen shoes etcetera. I think that, for their sake, people can stand to spend four minutes being lobbied, considering how much worse things could be.

I would move, moreover, that we are not made guilty enough — the extent of the inequality and inhumanity which exists is enough to make one depressed, but our civilisation allows us to quarantine ourselves from the reality. Street fundraisers corner us on the way home from work and break the quarantine. Should you feel guilty if you can’t afford to donate? of course not. Guilt, nevertheless, is a prime force in moving people into action.

Don’t like street fundraisers? Between fundraisers and charities having far less money, one is clearly the lesser injustice. These T-shirt clad proles are on the front line of the conflict against suffering and inequality, each one individually helps to generate thousands of pounds per year; they are not all that popular, but the best people are never popular. These people will continue to stop you on the street until there is no need for charity, so if you don’t like them, prepare for a long haul.

4 thoughts on “The Impermanent Street Fundraiser”

  1. Heey I got fired from a street fundraiser job yesterday… It was on my first day as well! But 2 hours in a thunderstorm and I was not enjoying it!!

    1. Rain and fundraising are a tough combination. I remember that on my first day, the company hired four new people; they fired one on that day and a day later my friend and I were fired, so far as I know, the fourth guy kept his job! It’s a tough industry, and many of the companies play tough — interestingly, the first company for which I worked went out of business last year, if memory serves. I wish you success in finding a new job!

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