My Goodness

Charity Muggers

I avoid street canvassers for do-gooding organizations. Does that make me a jerk?

Do you have a real-life do-gooding dilemma? Please send it to, and Patty and Sandy will try to answer it.

Dear Sandy,

I regularly see chirpy, T-shirt-wearing representatives of social-service and environmental organizations soliciting donations on the street. They often approach me with lines such as, “Do you have a moment for the environment?” or “Can’t you spare five seconds to help battered women?”—with the obvious implication that if I don’t talk to them, I am so insensitive as to be unwilling to spare a moment for (insert cause here). Even though I often share their convictions, I find this approach incredibly off-putting and, because of this, never stop to talk to them.

Am I wrong to avoid them? Does this marketing approach really make an impact? Isn’t there a better way to spread the message about worthy causes?

—Jessica, Boston


I once answered a newspaper ad for a job as a “community outreach worker” and found myself in a horrible daylong group interview to be one of those chirpy, T-shirt-wearing, clipboard-holding streetwalkers who annoy you so much. I snuck out during a break and spent the summer baby-sitting for 3-year-old twins instead. I’m almost positive it was easier.

That experience left me with a bad taste in my mouth. Now I, like you, tend to sneak away by crossing streets or donning headphones when I see them approaching. And apparently we’re not the only ones. More than two-thirds of Brits admit to crossing the street to avoid what they call “chuggers,” short for “charity muggers.” A solicitor for the ACLU said that of the thousands of people who pass her every day, only 30 stop to listen and a measly five donate. Which raises the question you ask, Jessica: Does this approach really do anything besides annoy people?

My first answer is that it must. Why else would charities spend money to hire them? Most street solicitors aren’t volunteers. In fact, most aren’t even employed by the charity directly but by an agency contracted to fundraise for them. One company, Dialogue Direct, claims to have pioneered “face-to-face fundraising” in Austria. The company allegedly recruited 260,000 “long-term committed donors” for their clients, whom they call “charity partners,” in the past year.

Not all organizations that employ street solicitors are for-profit companies. A 501(c)(4) that does the same work, the Fund for the Public Interest, is based in your hometown of Boston. They say they’ve “gathered over 20 million petition signatures over the past 25 years and raised over $20 million for [their] partner organizations in the last year alone.”

So, if they raise money for good charities, why am I still so queasy? The first reason is the unsettling amount of buzz around these organizations’ labor policies. Until a class action lawsuit was filed against the Fund for the Public Interest, it regularly paid canvassers who didn’t hit their quotas below minimum wage. There are also claims that canvassers’ push to unionize led to the firings of union supporters and the eventual closure of a fund office. I wouldn’t donate to a charity that violates fair labor standards, so why would I support their partnership with an organization that does?

My second reason for not donating through street solicitors is efficiency. According to Charity Navigator, for-profit fundraisers actually keep 25 to 95 cents of every $1 they collect. A Portland Tribune article says that Dialogue Direct is paid $180 per new donor enrolled. And this (painfully slow) YouTube video shows a “dialoguer” explaining how she is paid an hourly rate plus bonuses per person she gets to donate. On her third day of work, she made $700 by signing up nine new donors. Past canvassers for the Fund for the Public Interest say that their work with Save the Children was commission-based, and employees received 15 percent of the donation for “one-off” supporters and 20 percent for “Lifeline Sponsors.”

While I’m happy to hear that at least some canvassers make a living wage, commission-based pay seems counterproductive. Charities rely on long-term, committed donors, and a harried canvasser trying to meet a daily quota doesn’t seem like the best person to foster that relationship. If you are thinking about making a donation, make sure to ask how much of your pledge will go to the fundraising organization versus the charity. If the number seems inappropriate to you (whatever amount that is), then go home and donate directly.

As long as street fundraising enrolls new donors and makes money, charities will continue to do it. So if you don’t like it, don’t give. As long as you aren’t rude, I see no reason why you should feel bad about avoiding them.

Do you have a real-life do-gooding dilemma? Please send it to, and Patty and Sandy will try to answer it.