Street Fundraising

So you’re strolling down Queen Street West in downtown Toronto searching for a new pair of funky shoes to add to your collection and all of sudden, you’re approached by a clean-cut twentysomething in a colourful smock – “Do you have a few moments to talk about saving the planet?”

How do you feel? Guilt, because your thoughts are more focused on shoes than the planet? Frustration, because your annoyed that charities have resorted to raising money by approaching you in a public space? Acceptance, because you know how hard it is to raise a dollar in these tough economic times? Perhaps you are even pleased because you have been looking for an opportunity to support this charity and this canvasser has provided you with an easy opportunity to get started.

Well, that’s how I feel about this practice, commonly referred to as “street fundraising”.   I have mixed emotions. Very mixed. I accept street fundraising, because I know how difficult and expensive it is for charities to seek out new donors. Street fundraising provides these charities with a platform to reach out to a new group of prospective donors who are quite literally walking down the street.   On the other hand, I wonder if street fundraising undermines the overall credibility of the charitable sector by resorting to irksome practices which likely annoy most of the people who are being canvassed.

First, what is street fundraising? Street fundraisers typically stand in busy areas, approaching passers-by to convince them to donate money (usually a monthly automatic withdrawal from the donor’s bank account) to the charitable cause that he/she is promoting. The street fundraisers that I have come across in Toronto typically represent highly credible charities (in my experience, mostly international development and environmental-protection organizations). For charities that employ street fundraisers (or use a third-party firm), they see it as a cost effective way to bring new donors into the fold. Monthly donations provide a stable ongoing annuity for the charity to run its programs and run its operations.

There isn’t a whole lot of public research on street fundraising so I decided to do my own. I ventured out of the confines of my own offices (on Queen Street West) and decided to talk to some of the fundraisers as well as many of the people who had been approached. First, the fundraisers themselves. On the whole, I was extremely impressed by the professionalism of the fundraisers. None of the fundraisers was overly aggressive and all of them were consistently friendly, even when turned down. They were well trained and politely (and correctly) answered questions about their own compensation (typically an hourly wage, not commission-based) and the organization that they represented. All in all, a pretty impressive bunch.

Not surprisingly, there was a wide range of responses from the people who had been approached (keep in mind, my study was hardly scientific but I tried to speak to a cross section of age groups and a relatively equal number of men and women). Here are five responses which I think very much reflect the broader response:

  • “He [the fundraiser] was funny and polite. But they really are a nuisance. Something needs to be done about them.
  • “This is where my donation goes – paying for these guys?”
  • “It’s a little much – it’s a constant barrage every time I’m walking down the street. Enough already”
  • “They’re a step above squeegee kids but not a big step.”
  • “It’s really not that big a deal in the grand scheme of things. I can live with it.”

There was no one who spoke about street fundraising in overly positive terms. Some were fairly neutral but most were negative, some highly negative.

So what’s the final word on street fundraising? For one, it’s a practice that works so it’s likely here to stay. Street fundraising’s ability to raise dollars on a cost effective basis makes it attractive to charities (as donors, we have a tendency to focus too heavily on the costs of fundraising which is why the practice exists in the first place). But despite the professionalism and courtesy of its practitioners, street fundraising serves to undermine the credibility of the entire charitable sector. It does this by perpetuating negative stereotypes about fundraising and by associating charities with qualities that we as citizens simply do not care to endorse – aggressiveness and intrusiveness. Furthermore, whether true or not, it propagates the one issue that the sector is actually trying hard to mitigate – the excessive focus on fundraising and fundraising costs. (Ironically, street fundraising is probably one of the more cost effective ways for charities to bring on new donors).

So what’s a donor to do? Well, for starters, feel free to forego that funky new pair of shoes and make a donation to your favourite charity. If street fundraising proves nothing else, it is that charities definitely need your dollars to thrive and survive.