The Secret Behind Street Fundraising
Updated: Dec 16, 2019
Among the places I’ve visited and thought I could live in, Australia holds a special place. Well, I should be more specific, because Australia is massive. I lived in Melbourne for a couple of months though, and even though I didn’t stay there as long as I had planned, I truly liked the city.
Melbourne was a funny moment in my life, unplanned, spontaneous and short-lived. Toronto reminds me of her sometimes, with her wide avenues, high-rises and hundreds upon hundreds of Asian restaurants. Melbourne’s sky was blue, the sun bright and the air smelled of the sea. I’d also never seen as many hip people as in Melbourne. You do not know hipster until you get there, I promise you.
I arrived in Melbourne back in January 2017 with a Working Holiday Visa in my pocket. I had planned to work for a little bit before continuing on a six-month packaging trip in the eastern part of the world. The first - and only - job I found was street fundraising.
It was without a doubt the worst job I’ve ever done.
What’s street fundraising?
Street fundraising consists of asking for donations on behalf of a charity. Most of the time, those asking are employees paid by a private company working on behalf of the charity, although you might also bump into volunteers from time to time.
Street fundraising is particularly popular in Australian cities because of the constant influx of young people coming into the country to travel. It’s the kind of job that doesn’t require experience, that you can start right off the bat without much training and that you can quit anytime.
I don’t remember which company I was employed by, but I assume most of them are one and the same. The bullsh*t becomes apparent right off during the hiring process. Nobody ever showed me an employee manual or any written rules apart from my employment contract, so a lot of what I’m about to share is based on assumptions. Still, I’d say I’m probably not too far from the truth.
The company I applied for hired new employees by organizing group interviews. The overall process didn’t leave any impression on me. I don’t remember it being particularly difficult nor stressful. I had a distinct feeling that what mattered the most was how attractive, young and friendly you look rather than your actual knowledge of anything charity-related. Of course, I don’t know for sure, but as all my colleagues were young, good-looking individuals, I’d bet attractiveness and age were among the main requirements.
I didn’t get to pick the charity I was collecting donations for, and I think that’s usually the way those companies operate. In addition, I had no interaction whatsoever with the charity itself. I couldn’t even tell you whether they had an office in Melbourne. There were no requirement for me to know anything about them prior to my application, nor did I receive any training on the work they carried once I got a job offer. All I knew about the charity was condensed in a one-pager speech I was to follow.
Once I accepted the job offer, it was only a matter of days before I had a group training session. I think the training lasted about two half-days and involved some team work. My most important task, however, was to remember my selling pitch by heart. There were moments where all I had to do was stand in front of one of my colleagues and repeat again and again the same lines.
The selling pitch was a mix of basic psychology and marketing techniques. The overall goal was to force a person to start a conversation with you, then trap them into an endless circle of chatter until they reached the ‘Enter your payment method’ step. Street fundraisers are basically trained to manipulate you into giving your consent on an issue you’ve barely been exposed to. Again, the issue or charity you’re advocating for does. not. matter. I could be selling you air for all I care. What I’m telling you though is the same - there’s a terrible thing happening out there and it’s heartbreaking, but YOU can make a difference by giving as little as just over $1 a day.
Your speech is basically the only tool you really need. The rest will come down to natural instincts and good social skills. You have them? Good, you’ll be successful. You don’t? You won’t keep this job long.
Once you’re in the streets, your primary goal is to stop someone and start a conversation. You will yell countless ‘hellos’ before you get a person to simply slow down, so be patient and smile. There are tricks though, and again, although I never saw those suggestions in written, there were shared during my probation period. For instance, I was told I’ll have a higher chance of stopping someone if I asked them a question rather than just saying ‘hello’, as most people have a natural instinct to reply when being talked to.
Furthermore, there were clearly types of people I wanted to approach and others I wanted to avoid. I was told and encouraged to try and stop young ‘immigrant-looking’ men - aka non-White. Statistically, they were the most likely to stop - because I am a woman - and to give money. Women in general were also more inclined to donate, but that was my team leader's responsibility. He was a French immigrant and his accent worked wonders on younger-looking gals. The one group of people we would avoid at all cost was older conservative-looking White people. I kid you not.
There was something incredibly disturbing that the group I’d assume enjoys the most wealth was the one group we would not approach. There’s worse. I quickly realized that the most likely to donate were not only visible minorities, but more specifically refugees. I couldn’t shake the feeling that we were taking advantage of vulnerable people. It bothered me.
The work environment was terrible too. You were expected to secure at least one donor a day. Teams would often be composed of three people, which meant you’d need to get at least three new donors total. If you hadn’t reached your goal when 5 o’clock hit, you’d just have to stay longer until you got that donor. Three days in a row without securing a donor, and you’d receive a call kindly telling you you were fired. I remember one day I was paired with a colleague that wasn’t doing so well - they didn’t even wait until the end of the day to tell him to go home.
I stayed for a bit less than three weeks before I quit. Less than two weeks afterwards, I was back in Belgium.
I understand why charities ask companies like this to work on their behalf. Charities and not-for-profits in general are not profitable businesses - duh. What that means is that most charities and not-for-profits actually struggle to stay afloat and must constantly hustle to finance their operations. Any organization with growth ambition though needs more capital than ‘just enough money to pay salaries’. Furthermore, it is incredibly difficult for those organizations to attract and retain talent when wages are much lower than in the private sector. Charities need donations to keep the good work going, and it’s been proven again and again that the most efficient way to get someone to donate is street fundraising.
It’s still the worst job I have ever done. It’s probably on par with customer call centers, minus standing up in the sun all day. I guess the plus side is that it made me understand why I was being stopped by street fundraisers so much - I’m a young Afro-European woman after all - and what to do to avoid them - spoilers: do not interact at all.