We thought we’d stop them and ask a few questions
They are easy to spot. Waving clipboards and wearing brightly colored vests, lanyards, and smiles, gauntlets of canvassers can be seen lining Michigan Avenue and occasionally State Street, ready to pounce on passersby:
Do you have a second for the environment?
Do you have a minute for children in the developing world?
Over the last few years, I have observed an upswing in the number of sidewalk fundraisers for high-profile charities. The fresh-faced young men and women sporting Children International windbreakers used to mark the beginning of spring as clearly as daffodils and tulips budding along the Mag Mile. But now, these “chuggers” — a slang term combining charity and muggers — are out and about year-round.
Chuggers rely on friendliness, emotional appeals and, yes, pushiness to elicit on-the-spot donations. They take their cues from legions of Europeans who have been employing the technique for decades and boast a record of success in raising money for the charities that employ them.
Since most chuggers are younger, they are able to engage with a young donor base. In addition, potential donors who regularly screen telemarketers or throw away direct mail might not be so quick to dismiss an eager street solicitor.
Almost every Chicagoan has a way of reacting to chuggers’ requests for “just a minute of your time.” Some people avert their eyes or adopt a purposeful stride. Others return a noncommittal greeting or begin to sweat as they formulate a nervous excuse in their head. On the other end of the spectrum are those who step up to donate or chat with a chugger.
Sara Tews, fundraising for Children International in front of the Michigan Avenue Ralph Lauren store on a recent chilly Friday, said she “typically signs up one to two people per day.” Not all donors decide on the spot, and some sign up later through the charity’s Children.org web site.
“I would prefer people sign up directly with me,” says Tews, as that way she gets credit for donors.
Last year, Tews “personally signed up 178 people and the charity as a whole signed up 33,600.”
When asked about data protection, Tews said she uses an iPad “with an encrypted system similar to ordering online through Amazon,” to accept donors’ credit cards.
Since many potential donors do not budget for large, one-off donations, fundraisers typically urge them to accept a payment plan. In the case of Children International, it takes 90 cents per day to sponsor a child. This can be paid in monthly, quarterly, or other installments. Tews says the charity asks for a two-year commitment, but it is “up to individual donors to decide how long they want to continue.”
Despite the exasperation chuggers can cause, it is worth keeping in mind that their day is probably worse than yours. Several articles have chronicled long hours, constant rejection, and an unstable pay structure. Tews, who worked in alumni fundraising while attending DePaul University, has been employed with Children International for two years. She is quick to point out that her boss is “awesome,” but admits that schedules can be intense. Tews says, “Shifts last from 10am-6pm most days and I am out in pretty much all weather conditions.”
Whatever your reaction to chuggers, it is important to be informed. The City Council’s Finance Committee has a list of 33 groups that hold the required charitable solicitation permits. These groups have shown proof that they’re registered with the Illinois Attorney General’s office as legitimate charities, though it is up to consumers to request to see a permit. The city recommends dialing 311 to report a suspicious charity.
The independent watchdog CharityWatch.org encourages donors to “find out how much a charity is paying to solicit you, take the time to check out a charity before giving, and never feel pressured to give on the spot in the street.”
— Shanti Nagarkatti | Community Contributor