"It’ll just take a few minutes!” I plead with the young woman in a Human Rights Campaign T-shirt who had been flagging down tourists in Washington’s Dupont Circle. This is supposed to be her line. And it isn’t working.
"I’m kind of working right now," she says, trying to disengage eye contact.
And so, empty-handed, I walk away. As it turns out, the college kids on summer break who moonlight prodding you for contributions to support the gay rights cause are not allowed to talk to the media. Nor are the Planned Parenthood canvassers. Or the ACLU kids. If this is one of the hardest jobs in the city – begging strangers to give to charity, eight hours a day, rain or shine, with an assumed astronomical rate of rejection – perhaps the only lowlier job on a 100-degree day is the journalist who gets rejected by them.
The pamphlet-wielding sidewalk solicitor is summer’s least popular stock character. Come June and July in cities across the country, these well-meaning 20-somethings are everywhere, particularly everywhere you want to be – emerging out of a subway station, walking through your favorite park, heading into the downtown corridor with all the best lunch spots. No one likes to round a corner smack into these cheery faces. Even Jane Jacobs, who famously celebrated the city’s "intricate sidewalk ballet" – with its morning commuters, shopkeepers, idling Longshoremen, primping teenagers, business lunchers, motor-scooter riders, baby carriages, profane drunkards and late-night partiers – left out the Greenpeace kid.
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We know how we feel about sidewalk solicitors. But what have they learned about us? Does the city seem like a more or a less generous place when you encounter several hundred pedestrians each day, and only one of them proffers a credit card number to send an African kid to school?
About half the canvassers we approached turned us down (and we weren’t even asking for money!). The other half were great sports about it. After all, you cannot do this job if you have a problem chatting up complete strangers.
So what does a good day look like when this is your job? Signing three donors? More?
"Oh, that’s a normal day for some people that are really good," says Stephané Ngekoua, a 20-year-old canvassing for Children International.
“A good day for me would be three or four,” laments his partner, 22-year-old Matthew Bowes (he's the guy on the left in the above picture; Ngekoua is on the right). And then there are plenty of days when they stand out here for eight full hours and get no one at all.
"You definitely have days where you think you’re at the top of your game, but nobody signs up," Ngekoua says. "You just get ‘no, no, no, no, ah, get out of here, no, no, no, no. If you take it personally, you will not be able to survive out here. It is the mean streets of D.C."
Ngekoua and Bowes are expected to average 1.5 donors per day, or seven by the end of a five-day week (they’ll come back out on Saturday if they still don’t have that many). And that means in an eight-hour day, they may spend five or 10 minutes locking down a donor, and the other seven-plus hours fielding rejection and indifference. This is the startling math behind street canvassing. A lot of these people are paid fundraisers working for third-party for-profit organizations that specialize in hiring and training canvassers on behalf of charities (Ngekoua and Bowes technically work for a company called Dialogue Direct). But even as trained fundraisers and not volunteers, their tactics are expected to work on what may amount to less than 1 percent of us.
So that has to be super depressing, right?
"I know somebody is going to say ‘yes’ at some point," says 26-year-old Signe Rockhold, another Children International canvasser. "People can say no, they can get mad, they can do whatever they want. But I know that somewhere within that crowd of people, somebody wants to do it, somebody cares. They’re human beings. Not everyone doesn’t care. That’s how you keep going."
This sounds like a good alternate slogan for the city of Washington: Not everyone doesn’t care!
Ngekoua and Bowes at least have a sense of humor about the lengths to which they know you’ll go to avoid talking to them. They see you cross the street. In fact, they even notice when you disappear and reappear two blocks down the road. You are also not being slick when you pretend to have an urgent call on your iPhone.
"Ah, the phone trick," Bowes laughs. He is particularly amused when people act like they can’t hear him. "Then when you say, 'OK, have a great day!' they’ll answer back, like they weren’t even listening to anything."
Sidewalk solicitors are taught to assume that anyone might be a donor, and so trying your darndest to look like you’re broke won’t get you anywhere, either.
"There is no ‘oh all donors wear brown shoes’ or anything like that. People will surprise you," says 28-year-old Laura Kennedy, who works year-round for a company called the Fundraising Initiatives (with whom she was canvassing for ChildFund). Sometimes the guy who looks the least likely to donate is the first one to sign up, she says. "And then you’ll look at somebody else and be like, 'oh, that’s a Louis Vuitton bag, they must have money to donate.' And that person will walk away from you."
You also cannot throw an objection at Kennedy she has not heard before. So you want to spend more time researching the charity? She’s happy to keep discussing it with you. So you want to talk it over with your significant other?
"I’ll say, 'well you’re obviously a very generous person, I’m sure your husband is a generous person, too,'" she says. "'Do you really think your husband is going to be upset that you saved a child’s life today?'"
This is a pretty impressive rhetorical skill, although it also speaks to why the rest of us cringe whenever we see these folks coming. Of course you care about saving children (or maybe you don’t; Ngekoua and Benson have actually been heckled by passersby insisting they hate little ones). But what would happen if you were to save the children at 17th and Connecticut, and then the whales at 18th and Connecticut, and then the reproductive rights of women at 19th and Connecticut – only to encounter all of these people on slightly different corners the next day?
Charity canvassing is such a painful rite of summer because we grow inevitably fatigued by all these fundraisers even as the math behind urban generosity requires that they oversaturate the city. At the intersection of those forces, it’s practically impossible to say you care about anything without putting your money where your mouth is.
Then again, the system must work for somebody or it wouldn’t be such a permanent fixture of the city in summertime.
"A month ago, I stopped somebody here who was actually sponsored through our program," says Ben Sellers, 28, who was also canvassing for ChildFund. "It actually did a great thing for him in Togo. He told me how we did a lot for his community. He was one of the products of it. And it kind of hit me in a different type of light. He’s a doctor here now."
So did the doctor donate?
"He actually sponsored three children through our program anyway."
I did not want to suggest to him that this would be an excellent cover story for getting out of giving to the ChildFund.
All photos by Emily Badger