Thursday, July 14, 2011

Street Fundraising: highs, lows, sadness, and excitement

Today, I started my new job as a street fundraiser. From 11 a.m. to 6:30 p.m., I was one of those annoying people on the streets that stopped everyone and asked them to donate to a charity. Let me break down what was possibly the best, worst, most tiring, most fun, most social, most depressing day of my life.

In my 7 hours in the field, I'd say I tried to talk to 350 people. There were a couple techniques I used.

(a) Wave either one or both my hands from 20 feet away to get them to notice me, and say "Hi!"
(b) Move so I was in their path, extend my hand, and say "Hi!" when they were close enough.
(c) Bow down, or fling my hands out in a hug-like formation, and say, "Hi!"
(d) Tell them their dress / skirt / hat was cute.

Of those 350 people, 15 of them stopped to have a conversation with me. The other 335 did one of five things:

(a) "No thank you, I'm running late / have work / can't talk"
(b) Took out their phones and stared intensely at them
(c) Looked straight ahead and, with great willpower, tuned me out
(d) Veered at an angle away from me, and gave me a tiny, tiny smile of acknowledgement
(e) Smiled and said, "Not today."

Of the 15 people who talked to me, I had some pretty interesting conversations.

One girl walked by me, and I yelled, "Are you a native New Yorker?" I had to follow her down the block, and turns out she was born in LA, lives in San Francisco, goes to HBS, worked at Goldman Sales and Trading, and has a boyfriend already.

Another was this MIT 2011 grad who was walking to Equinox gym for Brazilian jujitsu. There was a Parsons student I walked for two blocks with. A Columbia student who had been approached multiple times. A nice Indian man who said he'd come back but never did. A black woman who was in the middle of filling out the form before she refused to give me her credit card information. The rest don't really matter.

I signed up one person my first day. He was a beer salesman (niceeeee), half-Filipino, and told me I had a great pitch. I was happy. It means I have 3 more days on the streets before I could potentially be fired.

There are two lessons I learned from the day. I'll run them down in importance.

1. White people won't stop for me. It's just a fact. Of the 15 people that stopped for me, 13 were minorities. Asian, black, Latina, European. There was one nice young lady and one nice older man who were white. That's it. Either I'm subconsciously psyching myself out when I'm approaching them, or I'm just not attractive and familiar enough to pitch them. If anyone has any insight into what the f*ck is happening, I'd love to hear it.

2. It's really easy to get sad on this job. In one hour, I have an average of four conversations, all usually less than a minute. That means the other 56 minutes are spent either getting rejected, smiling and waving before I get rejected, or standing around waiting for a person to come so I can (likely) get rejected. It was the worst between 3:30 p.m. and 5 p.m., when literally one person stopped for me. I felt like shit. Like I wasn't a worthwhile human being. I questioned why I took this job in the first place. I asked myself why New York was such a mean place. I wondered if I cared enough about the organization, and whether it was showing in my pitch. I resigned myself to a "0" sign-up day, until my coach snapped me out of it. I got my first sign-up immediately after.

For the next three days, I need to average one sign-up a day. If I was pushier (I don't know, I'm not sure I can bring myself to do it), I could have gotten 3 today. Maybe. It's all about rapport -- developing it so they're comfortable enough talking to me in the sun for 10 minutes, giving me their credit card on the street, and sponsoring a child for two years. That's a Big Deal. I'll get better.

Immediately after work, I attended a GrubWithUs dinner down the street. It was surprisingly lively and fun. The people were great. I ended up staying for 3 and a half hours. On the subway ride home, I fell asleep. And now, I'm going to check my email for the first time in like, 22 hours.

This job is tiring. The biggest difference from a desk job is that there's literally no "Off" button. I can't switch my browser window from Excel to ESPN. I have to be On every second, because I'll never know when that one good person will come by. I'm engaged 100% of the time, in one way or another. And, despite how tiring it is, I think I might love it.


  1. Hi Peter

    This sounds challenging - making good first impressions are tough and you are trying to make as many good first impressions as possible.

    Since your blog brought up the fact that you're not sure why your pitch doesn't work for white people - maybe its because you classify them by their race before you approach them ( I tried to think of a nicer way to put that but I couldn't).

    Or my other idea is that they are intimidated because you seem like you are a Yale-educated intelligent young man who wants something from them?

    But sometimes, from what I've heard, there is just a glass ceiling in business that your/our ethnicity can't break through and I wouldn't take it personally

  2. Stop scaring the white people!

  3. As a past fundraiser (and now a fundraiser recruiter for Australia, NZ, Canada and America) I have to say, I've enjoyed reading your blog. The above blog is in my mind, a spot on analysis of a fundraisers first day. Let's just say its not for everyone, but boy does it become addictive!!

  4. thanks for reading kt! Your comment made me reflect on my time as a fundraiser -- I'm not doing it anymore, but wish I could still work 'part-time', e.g. drop in once a week and do 8 hours just for the rush again.

  5. Peter!!! This made me so happy, and scared to read. I literally had the same day today. Started my first day on the field as a fundraiser in Sydney, Australia. Out of i would say about 50 people who really responded to my greeting or my smile, those were the ones who i was to scared to even get to stop or to pitch. The afternoon was the worst because i was tired and i felt like a failure and i thought for sure i wont get anyone today, and the amount of times i considered quitting was very sad. Between 4 and 5 was the best. Immediately after i'd swapped areas with my team i met this cool, trendy girl and we chatted for about 10 minutes about clothes and states and facial piercings. I couldn't get her to sign up cause she was a student with hardly any income. Then a bit later i nicely greeted a lady and she literally stopped walked over to me and said, "yes, i have time to what charity are you with?" and she basically asked me to sign her up without me even having to try to hard or go through the trouble of stopping her. Whilst she was lovely and lifted up my spirits i still dont count it as a sign up cause she put all the work into it, and without it i would have gone the day without any. I was too shy the whole day to even say hello to some people, or if they responded they'd say "good, you?" and i would freeze at "GOOD, THANKS!!" freakishly loudly, but nothing would id be stuck at square one. One time i said to a lady "where are you off to?" and the replied "haha, i dont know" and i couldnt think quick enough so i said..."oh. havent decided yet??" in the most weirdest, corniest way possible. there was another lady with a grey scarf. it was a normal grey scarf. i greeted her, she was very kind, but as soon as id said the basics of the greeting i went blank and said "um...(looking for something to talk about) thats a lovely grey scarf." and that killed it cause she new i was full of shit. SO EMBARRASSING. The first person all day i managed to talk to was a travelling man from Argentina, and i did the pitch in my second language (spanish) and i hate speaking spanish cause its out of my confort zone, and 50% of the words i had to think about or say in english and say "do you get what i mean?" he didnt. in the whole day i literally managed to stop, properly stop, FOUR people. which i thought was pretty shitty. just read now that you stopped??? why?? this makes me reconsider your last line "i think i might love it" which makes me think i might hate it :(

  6. cool. just noticed the date and its a year old. you wont see this or reply and my only hope for some kind of support is done a dusted. :(
    thankyou peter for your blog