They spot you as you’re walking near Union Square on your lunch hour. Two impossibly fresh-faced, college-age canvassers with clipboards station themselves at either end of the block. They’re facing each other, so that no pedestrian heading in either direction can escape the trap they’ve set on this sunny summer afternoon.
As you approach them, you do what you can to pretend not to notice. You adjust the headphones of your MP3 player as a way of advertising that you can’t hear anything lower than the sound of an airplane engine. Or you pull the celebrity trick—holding a cell phone up to one ear, even though you’re not really on a call. And whatever you do, you don’t make eye contact.
But there’s no way you’re escaping the pitch.
“Got a minute for the environment?”
Or . . .
“Got a minute for gay rights?”
Or . . .
“Got a minute for the ACLU?”
And despite your evasions, you just can’t keep going, because the canvasser—who is younger and lither than you—has pounced into your path with the quickness of a jungle cat and is staring at you with an expectant, disarming smile.
And you stop, because you can’t dodge the Most Annoying People in Lower Manhattan.
It’s noon, it’s over 90 degrees, and Garth Mramor, late of Buffalo and Colorado University, overtakes a woman before she has time to run away. With sweat dripping down his ruddy face, he stares into her eyes and delivers his pitch at breakneck speed, knowing that he has only seconds to get it all out.
“Hi-my-name-is-Garth-and-I’m-from-Children-International-and-we’re-trying-to-help-children-in-poverty. Children-in-abject-poverty. There-are-kids-dying-every-day- because-they-don’t-have-something-as-silly-as-food-and-water. I-mean-even-a-bum-in-New-York-can-have-two-meals-a-day!”
Despite the fact that his breathless spiel is all monologue, Garth’s job title is “dialoguer.” It’s a term coined by an Austrian company known as the Dialogue Group, which helped to develop this brand of street confrontation and brought it to U.S. cities a few years ago with a subsidiary called Dialogue Direct.
Garth pauses to catch his breath and then whips out a laminated picture of his own sponsored child, an innocent-looking boy sitting in a hut thatched with palm fronds. The location, he says, is the Dominican Republic. He checks to see whether he still has the attention of the woman in front of him. He does, but then realizes he’s talking to a reporter.
“Children are dying and you’re wasting my time!” he says, scowling. Mramor drops the laminated photograph back into his duffel bag. He doesn’t apologize for seeming rude. “Being nice doesn’t work,” says the irritated college student. “I signed up two people today by being an asshole, and I’ll continue to do that. Have a nice day.”
In the summer months, hundreds of canvassers fight for sidewalk space with people selling comedy-club tickets, homemade rap CDs, and trial passes to exercise gyms and hair salons. It’s tempting to think that the army of young recruits is a sign that a new generation is joining in progressive causes. But actually, it’s a sign of something else—that the pushy approach is a money-maker for nonprofit organizations.
Dialogue Direct claims to provide Children International with a 150 to 160 percent return on its investment. (Children International itself, however, wouldn’t corroborate that claim, saying that it doesn’t discuss marketing strategies.) Other organizations like Greenpeace and the ACLU are sending more canvassers onto the city’s streets each year and are signing people up for their causes at record rates.
But the canvassers for children’s charities set another kind of record: for sounding the most desperate. Every pitch is couched in life-and-death terms, as if a child is about to expire that minute if you don’t open your wallet.
And nothing stops them. Not rain. Not rejection. Not even the all-too-frequent smartass who yells at them: “I don’t give a flying fuck about children!”
At 4 p.m. every day, just after finishing lunch at Wendy’s or Taco Bell, Stefan Siveski rounds up his teammates for a group huddle in Union Square. The others circle around him. They’re decked out in fluorescent charity gear so that they look like human highlighters. Opposite Siveski, there’s the Fridge, a large English lad on summer break, whose real name is Adam Warzynski. (You might have heard his British accent outside Whole Foods: “Do you have a minute for a charming English gentleman?”)
Next to Siveski stands the Joker, a 22-year-old student whose real name is Leisel Renaud (“I used to work for the YMCA, but now I’m helping children that are dying. So it’s really good!”). On Siveski’s other side is Sarina Martin, 21, of Gramercy Park, who is getting her real-estate license and whose nickname, World Vision, comes from a previous stint with a rival fundraising company.
Siveski, laid-back, charming, and handsome, is not only the leader but one of the best salesmen, averaging about four sign-ups a day (mostly ladies, whom he’s not above calling “my eternal sunshine” to turn their heads).
“I admit, I let the rain get to me,” he says to the others, referring to some recent soggy summer weather. “But think about the kids we’re trying to save here. A million girls in India that don’t have water to drink.” A giggle is heard from inside the huddle. “There’s nothing funny about this!” he snaps, though without losing his cool. “We’re on six, and our target is 15,” he says, referring to that day’s goal. “We can’t have any excuses, guys!”
Siveski closes the ritual by asking each person in the five-member team how many people they plan to sign up in the remainder of the afternoon. “Just focus on getting that first one,” he reassures everyone, and they all stack their hands atop one another for a moment of solidarity.
Morale-boosting is a big part of a job with so much rejection. It starts at the campaign’s office on 28th Street, where the canvassers gather at 9:30 a.m. each morning. Their progress is marked on a giant wall chart. They get a daily training session with a campaign manager, a dancer named Maya Escueta, who might show them a video about the Darfur crisis, read from The End of Poverty by economist Jeffrey Sachs, or hand out statistics about the scale of humanitarian catastrophes (“Do you know that we could end hunger with just one-tenth of what we spend on alcohol or cosmetics?” Sarina asks).
There is also a lesson about compassion fatigue (“It’s a phenomenon, I guess,” says Siveski, rolling his eyes). The teams bid for locations—Siveski usually vies for Union Square—and then they hit the streets, but not before lip-synching to their favorite tracks: Chris De Burgh’s 1986 hit “The Lady in Red” or Bonnie Tyler’s “Total Eclipse of the Heart.”
Siveski is only 19, but within a few weeks of starting the job in late June, he was promoted to team leader. He’s one of the most successful in an office that includes about 60 canvassers (the number varies from week to week because so many people quit or get fired).
Although the Dialogue Direct website promises that its approach ensures “the fun stays within fundraising,” about 40 percent of new canvassers quit in the first week, according to Dialogue Direct vice president Dan Mandell. Those who do stick with it, however, seem to enjoy themselves.
Dialogue Direct expanded into eight American cities in 2003. The company, whose client list has included Save the Children and the large anti-poverty charity CARE, is one of several organizations that put canvassers on American streets in the summer. Another is Grassroots Campaign, which is contracted by the ACLU and the Democratic National Committee.
And nonprofits are finding that the in-your-face approach often works better than more traditional fundraising models like direct mail, telemarketing, and expensive television commercials.
“You want to access the general public, and no matter how advanced your technology, the best way to access the general public is to get people talking to people,” says another Dialogue Direct VP, Matt Bergin.
Dialogue Direct says that it signed up 23,000 people for three children’s charities last year; its goal is to sign up 25,000 people to sponsor children this year. The ACLU says it signed up about 50,000 new members since it began street fundraising last summer—a big priority for the venerable organization, which has an aging membership base.
And those sign-ups are crucial to nonprofits, because the canvassers stopping you on the street don’t want your lunch money. They want your credit card.
Canvassers try to get their targets to commit to automatic monthly withdrawals for a year or two—sometimes even longer. Getting that kind of long-term commitment through a direct-mail campaign is extremely tough, says Steve Abrahamson, associate director of membership for the ACLU. “Some things just require more explanation,” he says. An interaction that lasts five minutes on the street may yield more than $1,000 to the charity.
And the canvassers say that sometimes they have even more success. DNC canvassers were buzzing last month about a man on the Upper West Side who had his credit card charged on the spot for $28,000.
Children International claims to pass 80 percent of the sponsorship money directly to the child in the form of social services. The organization currently generates more than $87 million in annual sponsorships, and 10 percent of new sponsors sign up on the street, says Dolores Kitchen, a spokeswoman for the organization. The charity enjoys a good reputation, though in 1998, a Chicago Tribune investigation of children’s charities found that children didn’t always receive the benefits that Children International claimed it had given them.
‘People don’t really want to do this,’ Siveski says about the people he stops on the street. “You have to persuade.” Escueta says that every objection comes from a certain place: “Either a lack of comfort, a lack of information, or a lack of empathy.” She admits that dialoguers can be annoying, but adds: “I think Martin Luther King was probably a bit annoying.”
A common objection that people raise, besides the fact that they don’t have any money—something the dialoguers almost never believe—is that they don’t feel comfortable giving their credit card to a stranger on the street. When that happens, canvassers will explain that the organization is accredited by the attorney general’s office, adding that they could personally get sued if they were to steal a person’s credit-card information. But Escueta doesn’t think they need to go that far: “You can show them anything, but at some point they have to trust you.”
Siveski, who is studying business at a university in Canada, says that street fundraising is a numbers game: If you get enough people to hear you out, at least some will sign up. “If you stop between one and two people, that’s pure statistics,” he explains. “Three to four, you know what you’re doing. More than four, it’s like you really care.”
And, of course, there are financial incentives. Canvassers are paid a base rate of $10 an hour, as well as bonuses when they get more than two sign-ups: $50 for the day’s third sign-up, $70 for the fourth, and $180 for the fifth.
“Ultimately, they don’t stop for the charity,” says Sarina Martin, who is a top signer in the group. “They stop for you.”
Dialogue Direct and other charities admit that not everyone is cut out for this line of work. It involves long hours, the personality to approach random people, and dealing with rejection and even cruelty. Canvassers get frustrated. Garth, the self-proclaimed asshole, was fired for his attitude just a few weeks after he was first encountered on the street by the Voice.
“I guess I’m not a team player,” he says.
Escueta, who is 27, knows just how tough things can get. One time, she was canvassing for CARE on the streets of New York. One man—”I guess he thought I was too pushy”—threatened to cancel his sponsorship of a child through another organization. It was the end of the day; Escueta broke down. She apologized, begging him not to cancel his sponsorship because of something she did: “And I just said to him, ‘Go in peace.’ ” Tears ran down her face.
A few hours later, she says, the man came back to find her. He gave money for CARE. Proof, she says, “that miracles can happen on the street.”
It’s almost 6 p.m., and Siveski is reaching the point of desperation. For practically the first time in his career as a dialoguer, he has had only one sign-up that day. On another corner, the Fridge is trying to woo sponsors with his standard line, but the charm of his British accent appears to be lost on the foreign tourists walking the streets. Sarina, wearing hip-hugging jeans and big hoop earrings, is batting her eyes at a man nearby. The man is explaining that the children she wants him to sponsor seem too anonymous. Kind of like “Save the Whales,” he says. Sarina eggs him on: “You know you’ve thought about sponsoring a child.” But the man resists, saying he’s already supporting two children—his own.
Siveski, meanwhile, is chasing after a medical student named Stacy: “Stacy! Stacy! Stacy! Come back, Stacy!”
He trails her for a half-block. The African- American woman in a low-cut dress finally spins around. “I can’t. I have medical loans,” she says.
But Siveski has a counter-argument: “I’m a college student. I just took out $30,000 in student loans last week.”
Stacy: “I have more than $200,000. I’m sorry.”
Siveski keeps parrying: “I was born in the former Yugoslavia. I know what a third-world country is. If I can do it, and I’m just a college student . . . “
Stacy: “OK, well, you’re a better person than I am. I’m proud of you.”
“No, you’re not,” Siveski says, and quickly shifts strategy. “We drink beer and go shopping while these kids don’t have food and water. In 20 years, when you look back on your life, what are you going to say that you spent your money and time on? Do you remember the last purchase you made?”
Stacy holds up the H&M bag in her hand.
Siveski: “Well, I’m sure you can’t remember the others.”
Stacy: “Do you have a website?”
It’s a question that Siveski hates, and he almost loses his ever-present cool. “Look,” he says, “there’s nothing on the website that I can’t tell you right here! Only three percent of our 350,000 donors came from the website!”
Stacy: “Well, maybe I’ll be in that three percent.”
As she starts to run away again, he follows, and she shouts: “Please, there has to be someone else!”
Siveski: “Stacy! Stacy! Stacy! Do you have food and water to drink? I ask you, do you know what it is like to feel thirst and not have water?”
Stacy: “I don’t have any money. My mom pays for my food.”
Siveski: “Then ask your mom!”
Stacy: “I feel badly . . . I’m sorry.”
He touches her arm lightly. She scoots away and runs down the street, calling back over her shoulder: “I feel so guilty!”
Afterwards, Siveski sighs in disbelief. “And she’s a doctor!” he exclaims.
“Are we really that annoying that if you stop for 30 seconds, we’re going to ruin your day? What’s the big deal?” he asks. “Ninety percent of people say they don’t have time because they have to go to work. They are so self-centered. They feel if they take 30 seconds, the whole world will come crashing down.”
But there isn’t really time to dwell on his frustrations. Within seconds, Siveski is eyeing the sidewalk again. It’s full of potential signers in summer dresses, and he’s already quickening his step.