William, one of the dozens of people asking for donations for Save The Children on the streets of Philly, had been working on a few signature jokes to get strangers to laugh and talk to him. And when he saw a man walking by enjoying some ice cream, he thought it would be an ideal opportunity for comedy.
William asked the man how the ice cream tasted. The ice-cream eater, obviously not in a rush, said “good.” That’s when William went for the punch line: He reminded the man that “these kids” don’t get to eat ice cream.
The man’s response? “Fuck off.”
It was one of the two worst experiences William, who — along with many other canvassers, asked that we not share his last name — has had so far. Which is pretty good considering how often he’s been out canvassing this summer and how many others have been joining him.
If it seems like you’re noticing an abnormally high number of charity canvassers around Philly, you’re right. According to canvassers — or as they’re also called, charity muggers or chuggers — the city is seeing more of them than likely ever before, with several new organizations having jumped into the Philadelphia market in the last year.
You’ve probably come face to face with them on your daily route to or from work. They’re wearing colorful vests and soliciting donations for charities like the ASPCA, Save The Children, the ACLU and many more. But they aren’t actually employees of those organizations.
Here’s how it works: Charities contract with a face-to-face fundraising operation. Companies like Public Outreach, Dialogue Direct, Donorworx and New Canvassing Experience employ the canvassers. And with some five to 10 members per group, there are probably a few dozen canvassers on the streets of Philadelphia, mainly Center City, every day.
The canvassers are out working to get people to donate to or sponsor their cause for about eight hours a day. But being out that long in a high volume area doesn’t always equal success.
“I get some good—no I get more bad than good,” William said. “I get denied all day.”
Stay out all day to get lucky
Canvassers are paid hourly wages with the opportunity for bonuses. Companies like Public Outreach offer health benefits. The canvassers don’t bring in loads of cash every day, but when some beat their quotas it’s considered a “high-roll.”
Jessica accomplished this feat after canvassing on 16th and Chestnut streets. Some of the best people she works with get 10 sign-ups a day.
“They’re probably putting more emphasis on urgency,” Jessica explained.“Letting people know why we’re really out here. Or they’re more aggressive like, ‘Please real quick 30 seconds.’”
The rare success story in the summer of charity canvassers happened to William. He told a couple, Rachel and Mike Schwartz, that they looked like awesome people. They stopped and chatted on the muggy sidewalk and about 15 minutes later it appeared they had practically become best friends.
“Rachel’s a social worker, and I said, ‘Well that’s awesome you obviously care about kids and believe they deserve to have their basic needs met, so let’s get you involved,’” William said.
The art of getting someone to donate time and money
Rachel Gammill, a canvasser for New Canvassing Experience, said about 50 percent of people don’t even acknowledge her when she tries to talk to them. But the people who ignore her aren’t the worst.
“The worst,” she said, “are the people who have their remarks like, ‘It’s too hot out here.’ I know. I’m standing out here eight hours a day.”
Several canvassers have created their own strategy to get the attention of passersby, like William who likes to shoot some one-liners or jokingly flirt with people’s boyfriends. He says it makes people laugh when he makes jokes like, “Is that your man? You’re a lucky lady,” or asking guys if they’ve been on the cover of GQ.
Laurie, another canvasser, thinks complimenting people works, but she said it’s also important how she presents herself.
“It’s a lot of facial expressions,” she said. “If you’re squinting from the sun or someone makes you mad for a moment, people won’t stop for you.
Jessica described her technique as “squaring up with people.” She stands in the middle of the sidewalk near the corner, but not on it. There she can pick out a person from the crowd who doesn’t seem like they’re in a rush and looks friendly.
Location matters, too. Old City is known to be a friendlier neighborhood than Center City. The Convention Center area is great for nabbing tourists. And canvassers have been near Comcast, in the City Hall courtyard and at Rittenhouse Square seemingly every day this summer for a reason: They’re heavily trafficked and often by successful people.
“As crappy as it sounds,” Gammill said, “[you go] where the money is.”
Canvassers have feelings too
But even the best strategies don’t always work. In fact, they usually never work. The quota for New Canvassing Experience is two sign-ups per day.
The increase in canvassers has also created more competition, and there’s only one Rittenhouse Square and City Hall to go around. According to canvassers, the companies are working on a site grid so they can best cover the city and not infringe on each other’s territory.
Of course, the danger lies usually not in running into other canvassers, but angry Philadelphians. Jessica said that recently one guy tried to beat her up while she was canvassing on Broad and Locust Streets. Laurie had someone tell her, ‘Go fuck yourself.’
“Oh yeah, people cuss us out,” Jessica said. “I had someone call me the n-word a million times. They called me a ‘b.’”
Unfortunately, canvassers encounter some rude people, but Jessica said some “angels” she encounters on the streets approach her instead. Some people take the initiative and ask her why she’s out there and how they can help.
The truth behind the vest
Most of the canvassers we spoke to had a legitimate passion for the causes they work for. Some of them see canvassing as a temporary gig or something they use to augment a career in music or a similarly difficult field to make a living. Others, like Gammill, have worked full-time for over a year and have ambitions of moving up in the philanthropy world.
“Even though it’s grueling,” she said, “I do believe in the work we’re doing.”
William, who has a son, ran into the director of New Canvassing Experience after he interviewed for another canvassing company. The director told him more about Save The Children.
“I was like, ‘I’d much rather work for saving kids than saving the environment.’” “The environment, animals, and Planned Parenthood — they’re all great, but I feel like kids are definitely number one.”
Jessica said someone told her how annoying it was seeing canvassers and they asked the question many Philadelphians are wondering: How much longer will they be out here?
“I have to tell them I’m working,” she said. “These animals can’t talk. Of course I’ll be out all over the place all the time.”