Thought

Street Charity Workers Are Invasive, Annoying And Insincere. They’re Also Probably Being Exploited.

Be nice to charity muggers - they're probably having a much worse day than you.

A smiling face, a lanyard and a brightly coloured top interrupts you on the street, offering a hand to shake. You respond by showing a deep interest in the new bargains on display in the window of Aldi. If they’ve caught you off guard, you might return their smile and force out some noncommittal pleasantry before awkwardly shimmying past without letting them grab your free arm.

But someone, somewhere, has stopped. And they are about to get charmed, or emotionally blackmailed, into signing up to donate $30 a month to charity. The aggressive and invasive techniques employed by paid street fundraisers, or “charity muggers,” accounts for their slang title: chuggers.

Chuggers are notoriously unpopular — the fake friendliness, the emotional blackmail, the in-your-face assertiveness. They’ve even inspired laws banning them in some cities. But despite almost everyone having had a conversation with one at some stage, many people have little to no idea that many chuggers are caught up in pretty unpleasant circumstances of their own.

Blood Money: The Dodgy Ethics Of Tugging Heartstrings For Cash

Nat* is an ex-chugger. She left after finding the work profoundly uncomfortable, and not just because of the everyday annoyances and exhaustions of trying to convince strangers to part with money — she found the drive to get people signing up often strayed dangerously close to exploitation. The people who stopped to talk to her were disproportionately from diverse cultural backgrounds; often, English was not a donor’s first language. Even when the person knew what was going on, Nat said people’s guilt and fear of causing offence played in her favour when persuading them to listen to her — “we don’t give them anytime to go away and think about it. We don’t have any pamphlets to give away – it has to be on the spot,” she says.

Worse than that, Nat was made to bring up sensitive topics with people that she felt ill equipped to deal with in an effort to drag money out of them. Chuggers are taught a specific script that aims to maximise their chances of a potential donor signing up — establishing a personal connection with the target, emphasising the good they can do by giving money, tying the charity to an experience in the target’s own life — that can touch on some very private and emotionally sensitive topics for many people. By following the script, chuggers can find themselves in extremely serious situations that their rudimentary training has no way of handling.

On one occasion when she was raising money for a medical research charity, Nat asked a woman if she knew anyone who had been affected by cancer, only for her target to burst into tears and reveal her mother had died last week from breast cancer. Out of her depth, Nat had no choice but to push on with the script she had been taught during orientation: “I wasn’t trained properly to talk to people about grief,” she says. The woman ended up becoming a donor, and Nat was left feeling like she had exploited a vulnerable woman grieving the loss of her mother without the proper training for dealing with it.

“That woman signed up and I felt terrible. She was so vulnerable,” Nat says. For chuggers, the company drive to sign up as many people as possible can inadvertently end in them opening up people’s emotional wounds, sucking out some blood, and letting the victim stroll off without any first aid.

We’re Not Running A Charity Here: The Nasty Working Conditions Of Chugging

For the chuggers, it’s all about the number of people signed up in any given day or week — hence their cheery aggressiveness. To understand that mindset, it’s worth looking at the business model used by the businesses that employ them.

Marketing agencies are typically outsourced by charities to do the gruntwork of fundraising. Questions about how much donor money actually goes to a charity’s ostensible cause rather than more fundraising is a common complaint from people annoyed by chuggers, and not without merit — a 2012 Fairfax investigation found that major charities like the National Heart Foundation were spending almost half their donations on fundraising.

The corporate culture of these agencies has a big impact on the negative perception of chuggers many people have. One, Legacy Marketing, closed after its offensive training tactics were revealed, including encouraging employees not to bother with the “poor, old, young, stupid or non-English speaking” people. However, the managing director of Legacy, David MacDonald, now works for another fundraising agency, the Appco Group. Appco appeared in the media last year when it was discovered 96 percent of the $12.2 million it raised for Special Olympics Australia was not received by the charity.

Despite the damage this system does to the charities’ reputation, and the large cut taken by the agencies – sometimes as much as 40 cents for every dollar – it’s still worth it for both parties. It’s those agencies that set the tone chuggers act out on the street, and their culture of emphasising profit at all costs explains why chuggers are so keen for you not to walk away. Jess* works for the same agency that hired Nat. She was disappointed to find that, rather than raising-money-for-charity good vibes, the so-called “team spirit” hinged on how much money each chugger could raise for the company. “They just cared that they were making money; it was all about the numbers,” she says.

The work environment is hugely competitive — there’s pressure to attend team get-togethers where employees boast about how many people they’ve signed up, and Jess claims she was compelled to work overtime without pay when the day’s signups were low. But even worse than that, chuggers often work on a commission basis rather than a guaranteed hourly wage — meaning that if they don’t sign up anyone on a particular day, they’ll have put in a full day’s work for nothing.

“I was underpaid every week that I worked for them because I didn’t get enough sign-ups,” Jess says. “I could have got more donors, but the only way to do that would have been if I took people’s money who didn’t understand it properly, and I wouldn’t do that.”

Spare A Thought, Save Your Money

That unstable pay structure also explains why so many chuggers have foreign accents — backpackers are routinely exploited by various Australian industries because they can’t access the same legal employment protections Australian citizens can. In 2014 Cornucopia Fundraising, which raises funds for charities like Amnesty International and the Red Cross, offered free return flights to backpackers from England, America and Europe to come to Australia and work as street fundraisers on commission. Under the deal, chuggers would split about 25 cents with the company for every dollar in donations they brought in, with the rest going to the charity. If a sign-up cancelled within 100 days, though, the charity’s fee would be deducted from that 25 cents, leaving the chugger with nothing.

It’s understandable that an industry like this has a high staff turnover, but how some companies react to the flightiness of their workforce is concerning as well. On Jess’ fifth day of employment, the team supervisor sat in a car across the street watching her work for the whole day. “It was because they didn’t trust me – I had asked too many questions during the training,” Jess reckons. “I felt completely uncomfortable.”

As well as being creepy, invasive, and suggesting serious trust issues, it’s worrying that a supervisor would be paid charity fundraising money to sit in a car for a whole day watching people work without their knowledge — behaviour that in many other circumstances would classify as harassment.

All added up, chuggers work long days for terrible pay, endure unstable conditions, are thrust into potentially exploitative work environments with minimal training — and don’t even get the feel-good buzz of working for a charity. So the next time you’re bailed up by a bright smile who only “wants to chat,” give them the benefit of the doubt; chances are they’re having a far worse day than you are.

Magda Hughes is a freelance writer from Melbourne, currently based in Berlin, and a soon-to-be lawyer. 

Feature image via The Kevin Bishop Show/YouTube.