15 April 2011

Get thee behind me, Chugger!

While I'm on a tear about the ubiquity of fundraising pitches, and the execrable notion that fundraising is the signature activity of nonprofit organizations, I'd like to take this opportunity to inveigh against chuggers. Well, not against the chuggers themselves, but against those who send them to out shake down pedestrians on street corners, in the name of otherwise worthy causes.

"Chugger" is, of course, a portmanteau word that combines "charity" and "mugger."

The way you recruit them is usually to put up signs on college campuses that say "Get Paid to Work for the Environment." (Or some other cause.) Then you hire idealistic young people, give them minimal training, and pay them outrageously low sums. You send them to towns that actually have pedestrians, and there they station themselves, greeting strangers and trying to shame them into making donations. Occasionally this activity is varied with attempts to get the pedestrians to sign petitions.

It would probably be pointless to blame these young students, or the other idealists who gravitate toward these jobs. Most of them need the money pretty badly, and many of them probably think that they are getting valuable experience in activism or community organizing. What they are getting is exploited. What the rest of us are getting is annoyed.

Because they are exploited, I try hard not to growl at or bite these hapless bottom feeders of the fundraising industry when I encounter them. It's also unfair to pick on them because they have to be polite while they're representing their organizations, when I (as a private person walking down the street) am under fewer constraints.

I'm not particularly proud of how I sometimes react when one of them accosts me on the street, but I'd like to make a point here by summarizing one sort of conversation that I've experienced:

Party of the First Part: Got a minute for the environment?(1)

Party of the Second Part: (sigh)

Party of the First Part: We're doing incredibly effective work on an incredibly urgent mission and we'd like you to make a donation and/or sign a petition.

Party of the Second Part: Sorry. I don't donate money or sign petitions on the street, but if you give me some information, I'll think it over.

Party of the First Part: Oh, we don't have any material we can give away.

Party of the Second Part: Wait, what? You're engaging members of the public on the street, and you don't have any informational hand-outs? That can't be right.

Party of the First Part: But it's really easy to donate. Look, I can take your credit card, if you don't have cash.

Party of the Second Part:
Sorry, no - I already told you that I don't make donations on the street. But, please! I work in the nonprofit sector, and I know how constituent engagement works. You don't start by pestering people for money. You need to build relationships with them, listen to their concerns, and give them something that will enable them to follow up later.

Party of the First Part: Well, all I have are the materials in this notebook that they gave me. I can't give it away. But if you have a piece of paper, I can write down our web address, and you can make a donation online.

Party of the Second Part: Look, I work for (Name of Organization Withheld)(2). We're doing incredibly effective work on an incredibly important mission.(3) Will you give me some cash right now to support our efforts?

Party of the First Part: No, no, I can't. I'm out here working for the environment(4). I'm supposed to be collecting donations and getting signatures for this petition. I shouldn't be giving money away to other organizations.

Party of the Second Part: Never mind. Have a nice day. Good-bye.

Of course, my efforts here are completely futile. I might be able to get a couple of chuggers off-script, and I might be able to encourage them to think about what advocacy and constituent engagement really entail, but I doubt that I'm succeeding even at that. Moreover, the people whose hearts and minds really need to be changed are the more senior staff members of these nonprofits, the ones who came up with this strategy. I don't need to be picking on impoverished college students who are set loose with a perfunctory briefing, a tin can, a petition, and a mediocre script.

To me, it seems obvious that engaging members of the public at the street level is both a privilege and an opportunity for a nonprofit organization. Firstly, there are so few communities that can even boast of a lively pedestrian culture or some sort of public square where ideas are exchanged. Secondly, if your organization is lucky enough to be get the attention of random strangers in a public place, you ought to think in terms of long term strategy. Hitting people up for money the moment they stop to talk with you may yield some short term donations, but as I've already pointed out, it's not how to build a real relationship. You would do far better to have something to hand out (even it's only a business card), to be asking for input about what passers-by consider to be their deepest concerns, and to have public policy experts on hand to engage in discussions or answer questions.

I don't think that the organizations that send out chuggers are likely to change their ways any time soon. Straining for some kind of consolation, I can only take comfort in the thought that these organizations are not merely employing today's chuggers - they are also manufacturing tomorrow's skeptics and nonprofit curmudgeons. My hypothesis is that a certain percentage of chuggers, if they are intelligent and alert, will independently pick up on the exactly the same points that I am trying to make here. If any of them choose to remain in the nonprofit sector, I hope that they will be just bitter and cynical enough to enjoy my blog, but not so bitter and cynical that they will accept and perpetuate chugging as a necessary evil.

1) Or for human rights, or to elect a political candidate, or for the arts, or to help the word's most photogenic orphans, etc.

2) This being the nonprofit that has the dubious distinction of employing me.

3) Details were provided to the Party of the First Part, but are omitted here to spare the organization the embarrassment of being linked back to me.

4) Or for human rights, etc.

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