By Brad Offman

The COVID-19 pandemic had a devastating impact on families and businesses across Canada and around the World. For many of us, the last two years have been tough. There are, however, some things about my pre-pandemic life that I will not miss. Regular commuting to downtown Toronto is one thing. Street fundraising is another.

It is my hope that street fundraising doesn’t return to the sidewalks of Toronto, or any Canadian town.

For those of you who don’t remember street fundraising, here’s what it entailed.

Let’s say you’re strolling down Queen Street West in downtown Toronto searching for a new pair of funky shoes to add to your collection. All of sudden you’re approached by a clean-cut twenty-something in a colourful smock — “Do you have a few moments to talk about saving the planet?”

What do you feel? Guilt, because your thoughts are more focused on shoes than the planet? Frustration, because you’re annoyed that charities have resorted to raising money by approaching you in a public space? Acceptance, because you know how hard it is to raise a dollar in these tough economic times? Perhaps you are even pleased because you have been looking for an opportunity to support this charity and the canvasser has provided you with an easy opportunity to get started.

I had mixed emotions about street fundraising. Very mixed. Prior to the pandemic, I accepted street fundraising because I understood how difficult and expensive it is for charities to find new donors. Street fundraising provided these charities with a platform to reach out to a new group of prospective donors who are quite literally walking down the street. On the other hand, I wondered if street fundraising undermined the overall credibility of the charitable sector by resorting to irksome practices that likely annoy most people being canvassed.

Street fundraisers typically stand in busy areas, approaching passers-by to convince them to donate money (usually a monthly automatic withdrawal from the donor’s bank account) to the charitable cause that he/she is promoting. The street fundraisers that I came across in Toronto typically represented highly credible charities (in my experience, mostly international development and environmental-protection organizations). For charities that employ street fundraisers (or use a third-party firm), they see it as a cost-effective way to bring new donors into the fold. Monthly donations provide a stable ongoing annuity for the charity to run its programs and operations.

Back in the pre-pandemic days, I worked on Queen Street West so I decided to do my own research. I ventured out of the confines of my own office and decided to talk to some of the fundraisers as well as many of the people who had been approached. First, the fundraisers. On the whole, I was extremely impressed by their professionalism. None of the fundraisers was overly aggressive and all were consistently friendly, even when turned down. They were well trained and politely answered questions about their own compensation (typically an hourly wage, not commission-based) and the organization they represented. All in all, a pretty impressive bunch.

Not surprisingly, there was a wide range of responses from the people who had been approached. Keep in mind, my study was hardly scientific but I tried to speak to a cross section of age groups and a relatively equal number of men and women. The following responses are representative of the comments I received:

  • “He [the fundraiser] was funny and polite. But they really are a nuisance. Something needs to be done about them.”
  • “This is where my donation goes — paying for these guys?”
  • “It’s a little much — it’s a constant barrage every time I’m walking down the street. Enough already.”
  • “It’s really not that big a deal in the grand scheme of things. I can live with it.”
  • “I try and cross the street to avoid them”

No one spoke about street fundraising in overly positive terms. Some were fairly neutral but most were negative, some highly negative.

So what’s the final word on street fundraising? For one, the practice worked so it’s likely to return…eventually. Street fundraising’s ability to raise dollars on a cost-effective basis made it attractive to charities. But despite the professionalism and courtesy of its practitioners, street fundraising really does undermine the credibility of the entire charitable sector. It perpetuates negative stereotypes about fundraising and associates charities with undesirable qualities like aggressiveness and intrusiveness. Furthermore, whether true or not, it draws attention to the one issue that the sector is trying hard to mitigate: the excessive focus on fundraising costs.

So what’s a donor to do? Well, for starters, don’t let any displeasure you might have with street fundraising prevent you from donating to your favourite charities. They definitely need your dollars to thrive and survive. If street fundraising is not to your liking, you can vote with your feet — with or without that funky new pair of shoes — and walk straight to your computer to make a donation online. Charities are happy to put your contribution to good use, regardless of how they receive it.

 

Brad Offman is Founder and Managing Partner of Spire Philanthropy, a management consultancy specializing in corporate-charitable partnerships.

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