For the past eight weeks I have been working for a fundraising company, stopping people on the street and asking them to contribute to a non-profit. Living on the East Coast for many years, I have seen such people almost daily, and although I have seldom contributed to them, I never imagined what it was like from their side. I’ve always watched construction workers and wondered how they stood being outside during the worst weather. Now I have some idea what they are going through out there, and I’ll never ignore a street canvasser again.
Street canvassers aren’t born knowing how to do this job; nor did they teach it to them in schools–and it is a real skill, which is difficult to learn. First you learn the speech–who or what you’re representing, and what they need the people you stop to do. Perhaps not surprisingly, singers and actors do well at this because they’re used to memorizing texts. Then you have to figure out how to get people to stop–short of sticking out your foot to trip them as they go by, or just jumping out in front of them on the sidewalk.(No, the companies frown on such tactics, darn it). You have to make sure you’re heard above the street noises–buses, carts, trucks, sometimes construction equipment–and nearby loud conversations. No day is too hot, cold, windy, snowy or wet. Once you’re out there you’re expected to get out there and try.
The next obstacle is the people you’re trying to reach. Some are amused by your efforts to get their attention, some are outraged that someone is on the sidewalk interrupting their day–or somehow getting in their way, although you have the rest of the sidewalk to travel on. It’s hilarious the great lengths some people go to avoid acknowledging the canvassers; I’ve seen people actually step into traffic, run into other pedestrians, duck into nearby stores or restaurants, or walk for nearly a block with their heads carefully turned up and away in the other direction, or even break into a quick jog; just to avoid eye-contact. (Honestly folks, after standing all day in the heat, the canvasser doesn’t have the energy to run you down like a lion chasing a gazelle. Just say, no thank you, or just shake your head. We get it.) A favorite pedestrian tactic in big cities to suddenly claim they don’t speak english when you’re half-way through the introduction
An unfortunate encounter is when you run into someone who’s just been waiting for an opportunity to vent their spleen; sometimes about your company, but most often, on completely irrelevant subjects, and the canvasser provides a perfect target. After all they initiated the conversation, and getting away gracefully is difficult–you don’t want to set them off on a new tangent, because time spent with someone you know won’t contribute is literally money wasted. The canvasser could have used that time speaking to someone who did want to contribute. By the way, a canvasser speaking to you on the street is not asking for sexual harassment–be they female OR male(I’ve seen it done to both sexes). Amazingly enough, the homeless–not all are dirty,smelly and ill-dressed by the way-will sometimes stop if they’re interested in a cause, and offer money from what little they have. It’s very humbling. Since you’re in front of their place of business occasionally store owners will ask you to move, but occasionally restaurant or cafe owners will actually bring you cold water, and the use of their restrooms. I thank all of you who were so gracious to those of us working in the heat.
I’ve stood outside for five hours in sunlight on the hottest days of this past summer, and it’s no joke. Aching feet, dizziness, headaches, sore throats from yelling over noise, leg pains, dehydration, sunburn, burning eyes, frustration from spending a full day repeatedly reaching out to people without a single contribution while pretending each rejection doesn’t hurt, then elation each from success are all part of the experience. You might not realize that the canvassers aren’t necessarily getting a percentage of what they raise. But in all cases, keeping their job depends upon being consistently successful in getting people to participate.
Now when I’m out in public, and I see someone out on the sidewalk with a tablet or a clipboard trying to get my attention, whether I want to contribute or not, I give them a quick smile and nod as I go by. I’ve literally walked in their shoes. I get it.