Our days working as street fundraisers would typically unfold as follows. The alarm breaks the silence at 06:30. By 07:00, we’ve successfully dragged ourselves out of bed, showered, and are sitting by the breakfast table desperately trying find the will to wake up. At around 07:30, we go our separate ways as we embark on our morning commute to the location we were appointed to the evening before.
From 09:00 to 17:00, the streets were our offices – mostly at train stations and commercial hubs – and our goal was to greet and talk to as many humans as possible to raise awareness and hopefully funds for Amnesty International. Because of very high daily targets, we often ended up staying longer than required, meaning we would only reach the comfort of Winston by 19:00. With enough time and energy for dinner in front of a short episode of Rick and Morty or The Expanse, we crashed, knowing that in some hours it would be time to repeat the process.
Street fundraising is an unsettling and tiring job with a really steep learning curve. Before setting foot on the ‘battlefield’, we had to familiarise ourselves with the spiel provided by our managers. But to en sure we had our facts straight, we decided to go the extra mile and thoroughly research Amnesty International ourselves. After all, the last four years spent studying had to be useful for something, right?
But oh boy, how naive were we to think that learning the most kick-ass spiel was the best way to get the highest number of donors. The problem was getting people to listen to us in the first place, if they would even stop that is. It is no easy task, especially considering that our uniforms consist of a bright fluorescent yellow t-shirt which labels us as street fundraisers from a kilometre down the street, giving Melbournians a head start to carefully plan a route to avoid us.
Even though approaching and engaging a conversation with a stranger is something we are both comfortable doing, nothing prepared us for the level of rejection we would face on the streets. Receiving a “f**ck off” as a response to a joyful “good morning!” or being stared at right through as if we were invisible was a daily occurrence on the job.
Our efforts finally started to pay off at the start of the second week, as we both got off the mark (first donor of the day) for the first time. From there on, it felt like we were starting to get a hang of things. By the end of most shifts, we managed to convince at least one new donor to come on board. Unfortunately, it was still short of the company’s daily target of two a day.
With hindsight, it becomes clear that our lack of success could be attributed to a disagreement we had with the guidelines provided to us in Fundraising 101. On our first day, the supervisors boiled down street fundraising to one concept: concern handling. It provided us with the theoretical framework to handle any type of concern that might arise during a conversation. In short, it felt like the goal was to insist long and hard enough on someone, such that they eventually break.
At the time, we just saw it as a guideline which needed to be applied in moderation to the real world. But our intuitions were mistaken. After seeing a few successful fundraisers operate, it became clear that the guidelines actually have to be applied to the letter. And it makes sense.
If the passerby is a confident person, they might politely listen, nod or initiate a debate, but eventually, they will move on as soon as they have decided that enough of their time was taken. Now if the passerby is shy, they might not feel as comfortable voicing their opinions, and it is likely that after enough concern handling their credit card details will end up in our system. Consequently, it doesn’t take too long for certain fundraisers to figure out that their chance of success is higher if they target shyer individuals.
So this is where the cognitive dissonance comes into play. Street fundraising plays a huge and vital role for charities, bringing most of their funding in every year. As Amnesty states on their website: “Last year, we raised at least €4 million from new supporters through face-to-face fundraising, despite how hard it can be. “People deliberately sidestep you, ignore you, avoid eye contact or run away, and you have to be fluent in Amnesty’s work. As the voice of the charity, you must have current information on reports and campaigns.” (Amnesty International, 2015). In Amnesty’s case, they would not be able to ensure that the most fundamental human rights are respected and enforced if they accepted any governmental funding. If they did, their autonomy would be lost and they could not act independently against individual states.
Nonetheless, pressuring vulnerable targets was the most effective way to get people on board, it would however leave them with a sour aftertaste. This seemed counterintuitive to us. Getting someone to donate just over $1 a day for a never ending list of human rights infringements shouldn’t be so difficult. Still, it felt wrong to apply techniques and manoeuvres to get what we needed.*
So, in the middle of our fourth week on the job, we decided it was time to hand in our resignation. At this point we had managed to raise approximately $20,000 for the charity between the two of us. Knowing that we could financially sustain ourselves for a bit more than a month, we had a bit of time to start over and once again scout the job market to find something that will be a better fit!
In some sense, street fundraisers have a daily ticket to the soap opera The Melbournian. Every day a new episode with even more drama, humour and absurdity, all happening in a different location. We could start our week in the frantic streets of the Central Business District, move on the next day to Prahran and its bustling market, and end the week next to the St. Kilda’s beach, amongst the other backpackers. So whilst it was not our cup of tea, it was a great way to discover Melbourne, meet inspiring people, and find footing in the Australian lifestyle.
* For those of us who are shy and feel uncomfortable getting out of conversations with fundraisers, the best way to get out, is to let them know that you do not live in the country they are fundraising in. They will let you go 90% of the time. We also would not give our credit card details to someone on the street representing a charity we don’t know. However, now that you know this bit of information, you need to promise us that whatever charity these fundraisers are fundraising for, you go home, look it up, look into it, and really consider putting your money in their cause – and please actually do. It really is the individual in these situations that changes the world.
Amnesty International. (2015, April 24). 9 Things You (Probably) Didn’t Know About Where Amnesty’s Money Comes From . Retrieved June 11, 2018, from Amnesty International: https://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/campaigns/2015/04/9-things-you-probably-didnt-know-about-where-amnestys-money-comes-from/