Dispelling the myths about one of the most thankless jobs in Toronto: sidewalk fundraising.
Chances are you already love them or loathe them.
If you’ve navigated a downtown street in the past few years, you’ve definitely been targeted by them: those precocious, ferociously upbeat, binder-hugging, logo-vest-wearing, vaguely hippie-ish canvassers advocating for sick kids and abused bears and impoverished orphans.
Street-walking fundraisers run the gamut between amusing diversion and annoying obstacle, often sending pedestrians sideways in order to avoid contact. Yet they are also, increasingly, a lifeline to major charities reliant on novel tactics to stay afloat, so you might as well get used to them.
“By recruiting and properly managing thousands of monthly donors, the non-profit is able to count on monthly revenue for years to come,” testifies Vancouver-based Bryan McKinnon, founder and director of Public Outreach, which trains and dispatches street teams on behalf of multiple marquee non-profits nationwide to engage in “face-to-face” fundraising—a fancy way of saying “signing up monthly donors on the street.”
Says McKinnon, “Rather than continuing to ask for more money from monthly donors, the non-profit can focus on communicating with those donors on their impact in the world, to build donor loyalty that their ongoing donation is working to make the world a better place, which is what supporters of a charity are looking for in the first place.”
Yes, that’s all very cool, and Public Outreach’s advertised 2:1 and 3:1 return on investment over a five-year period is awesome. But seriously: What’s the deal with those omnipresent street teams haunting the sidewalks at busy intersections like keeners who’ve glugged the proverbial Kool-Aid?
How the heck do they bring the cheer for an eight-hour shift? Outside. In Canada.
Do they work on commission?
Where do they pee?
How much do they really know about the charity they’re representing?
And, most importantly, what’s the best way for punters to deal with them without feeling like a put-upon jerk?
Many answers can be divined by attending a Public Outreach Morning Briefing, which occurs daily in one of their multiple charity-specific office spaces citywide. The half-hour meetings are tweaked thematically depending on the charity being pitched by that day’s team. On the day of my visit, the focus is: Inspiration in fundraising.
Part unabashed pep rally, part info session, the Morning Briefing is the face-to-face fundraiser’s equivalent of a hot breakfast: their spiritual and mental fortification against a society far too busy to stop and chat, much less pledge $20 a month every month—often for many years—to an aid organization. And yet plenty do, mostly because of what happens out there on the street after one of these summits.
On the third floor of a blah building at Yonge and St. Clair, fundraising manager Bronwyn Laforet—standing excitedly before a whiteboard, red marker in hand – is rousing the troops (who sit cross-legged on the floor), pushing them to share ideas on how best to inspire caffeinated commuters to give it up for kids living in poverty in developing nations.
The mood is almost eerily electric as the fundraisers—abetted by senior fundraising manager and veteran turf-walker Emily Smits—share candid tales from the pavement like dry drunks in a church basement while cheerleading each other to get out there and change the world.
The word “cult” comes to mind.
Public Outreach’s Marisa Tran, Bronwyn Laforet, and Emily Smits
“We hear that often,” laughs Marisa Tran, 25, Public Outreach’s manager of national recruitment and one of the most experienced staffers with seven years’ service. “It’s hard to explain unless you are a part of it. But when you’re talking about a charity and are surrounded by positive energy, you just want to surround yourself in it all the time.
“These teams are like families,” Tran adds, confirming that the average age of a Public Outreach fundraiser “on turf,” as they say, is between 19 and 27, though retirees and new arrivals seeking to polish their English have also queued up for the $13/hour plus benefits (and subway tokens) that the canvassers earn.
“If you talk to 1,000 people in a day and only sign up two donations, it can be discouraging,” Tran admits. “We keep each other up.”
Startling number, that—as in, startlingly small for a nation that prides itself on altruism. Yet company founder McKinnon insists face-to-face fundraising is the most viable, cost-effective, and lucrative way forward for non-profits in a post-direct mail, post-TV commercial, PVR world.
And Public Outreach, with its laser focus, serves as a kind of farm team for the non-profit sector. (Staffers are generally assigned to one charity for several months so they get to know it, sometimes travelling overseas for a first-hand look at donor money in action on the company’s dime to better “inspire” potential donors.)
Tran says certain aid organizations offer preferential treatment to Public Outreach personnel. “They know our staff are well-trained, engaged, and understand what the charity’s needs are and how to reach them,” she says.
Similarly, those eyeballing future careers in the non-profit sector seek out street fundraising jobs as persuasive résumé fodder. McKinnon reckons some 50 Public Outreach staffers have transitioned to jobs in the non-profit sector since the company’s launch in 2002—though, of course, there are no guarantees of gainful employment.
Some other fun facts about those pesky/perky streetwalkers: the fundraisers do not work on commission, which is prohibited by both Imagine Canada, a charitable umbrella organization, and the Association of Fundraising Professionals. “It also makes people too aggressive,” says McKinnon.
Public Outreach is in eight cities across Canada and prides itself on offering a positive work environment. In Toronto, they have 12 teams, six of which do street fundraising while the rest work door-to-door, in malls, or following up leads generated by street teams.
In winter, their national staff numbers about 200; by summer, that number doubles as seasonal workers, mostly students, climb aboard. Managers are almost invariably former fundraisers, and most still hit the streets occasionally to keep the shtick sharp.
Street teams use restrooms in coffee shops and restaurants where they take their breaks—a one-hour lunch and two 15-minutes breaks over the course of a 9:30 a.m. to 5:45 p.m. shift. Canvassers rotate city streets and intersections to prevent saturation and donor fatigue.
“We really do care about the citizens of Toronto,” McKinnon chuckles. “We make sure that we’re not bunched up and in the same place over and over again. And we want to make sure people’s experience with us is really high-level.”
McKinnon continues: “Our fundraisers always have a name-tag, picture ID, and a phone number which does not go to Public Outreach but goes directly to the charity. So if someone has a question or concern, it goes straight to the charity.”
Lest you be wondering, McKinnon says Public Outreach receives “less than one complaint from the public per 500 sign-ups,” perhaps suggesting angry Tweets only count as a half-complaint.
“And we have the option to switch [to pitching] a different non-profit if one inspires us a little more than the other,” adds Smits, who admits she bounced between jobs before settling contentedly in with Public Outreach six years ago.
She also offers that fast-moving Torontonians are evasive but generally not mean, despite what they might tell you in Vancouver. And street fundraisers happen to think they’re tremendously fortunate, despite the endless cold shoulders and averted glances they endure.
“I’ve worked retail, been a waitress, but once I started this job I realized it was the best I ever had. I get to do something I love every day,” offers 22-year-old Ottawa native Mary Young, who moved to Toronto about four years ago, is studying Fashion Communication at Ryerson, and is enjoying her second summer pounding the pavement for Public Outreach.
“People are busy. And we understand that some days, they’re on a mission to get somewhere. So it is tough. But I do feel like being out on the street I have those five seconds to impact someone’s life,” Young says, adding that she signed up three child sponsorships on her best day so far this summer.
“We’re not trying to bother people; we’re just trying to open the door of opportunity. Sponsorship doesn’t just change the lives of the children; it changes the donors’ lives as well.”
Which means the best news of all is this: If you don’t want to talk to face-to-face fundraisers, they don’t want to talk to you, either, despite their zeal and cornball opening lines.
“It’s not in our interest to talk to you if you don’t want to talk to us,” McKinnon says. “We don’t take it personally. People can just wave and say, ‘No, thank you’ and keep going. Our staff is not going to chase you down the street.”
Adds Tran: “It’s difficult for a lot of people to come out of their comfort zone and actually talk to our fundraisers. But they will inspire you. And even if you don’t donate, they will make your day better. They always do.”