What It's Really Like to Be a Street Charity Fundraiser

"Chugging" mostly involves being palmed off by strangers, but it can also give you a unique insight into British opinions and attitudes.

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May 15 2014, 11:04am

Illustrations by Craig "Questions" Scott

Charity fundraising is finally making its move from the street to the server. That apparent zenith of self-serving clicktivism, March's #nomakeupselfie, actually ended up raising £8 million for Cancer Research UK in just six days, and the late Stephen Sutton – the 19-year-old who passed away yesterday from bowel cancer – raised an incredible £3.2 million on his JustGiving page, the largest donation in the history of the Teenage Cancer Trust.

This is good news for two reasons: a) lots and lots of money is being raised for fantastic causes, and b) there's every chance that IRL fundraisers will soon cease to exist. No longer will you be forced to sidestep people wearing bibs and waving clipboards at you on your way to work. Instead, you can just wait until something moving pops up between all the Solange jokes and baby photos on your Facebook feed and give money to that from the comfort of your own bed.

However, the switch to online will spell the end of something that not many appreciate about the day-to-day of charity fundraisers; the vast majority of the public either call you a cunt or just ignore you entirely, but there are some who open up in ways that might surprise you. For whatever reason, people seem to have less of a filter while speaking to fundraisers, giving them a unique – if brief and kind of aggravated – insight into their lives.

I know this because, last summer, I enrolled as a door-to-door charity fundraiser – or “chugger”, a portmanteau of “charity” and “mugger” that’s now seared into my cochlea forever after having roughly 200 people scream it at me in frustration. I knew that kind of experience was exactly what I was getting myself in for, but figured that raising some money for charity would be a worthy alternative to pulling pints, my work hopefully putting food on tables rather than beer in bellies and fists in faces.

Before I signed up, I was more familiar with the run-of-the-mill town centre chugger, one of those out-of-work CBBC presenters with a passion for mildly inconveniencing people. But, as I would discover, the people who sign up for the door-to-door fundraising gig – the Jehovah’s Witnesses of the £2-a-month game – were a different breed entirely, described to me on my first day as “not losers exactly, but the waifs and strays of society”.

My experience began at a group interview at the company's offices somewhere in coastal East Anglia, where I was the only person wearing a suit. Almost everyone else looked like they’d just about managed to rouse themselves out of their skunk comas and away from Phillip Schofield’s face to be there for the day. In fact, the guy leading the interview was the only other person who’d worn something that would allow him entry into a nightclub.

He told us about his career so far, starting as a humble street fundraiser and working his way through the ranks. We could, apparently, actually make a career out of this job if we had the ability – people “with the knack for it” were supposedly earning as much as £27,000 a year knocking on doors. We were to be paid a flat rate of £35 a day and only entered bonus territory (£50 per sign up) once we got more than eight sign-ups a week. So, by “knack”, I imagine he meant we’d have to make at least 13 sign-ups a week (eight standard; five or more bonus) if we wanted to earn anything like that amount. And if you’ve ever palmed off a bucket-shaker in the street, you’ll appreciate that enticing that many sign-ups is probably pretty difficult.

Our training consisted of practising and learning a speech, which we would reel off at a person’s front door, as well as being taught how to “objection handle”. People, being inherently selfish creatures, would invariably make some excuse as to why they couldn’t give us any of their hard-earned money, and objection handling was the way we were taught to deal with these excuses.

For example, if someone said they couldn’t afford the donation, we’d say, “Well, £2 is less than you’d spend on bread and milk in a week – doesn't that put things into perspective?” Hopefully – or so the thought from management went – they would be wracked with guilt and set up a weekly direct debit there and then.

My first job was in a small village in rural Norfolk. Each group of up to about half a dozen people was supervised by a team leader. When I got into my team leader’s car with my new colleagues, one of the first things he asked us was whether we were OK with him smoking weed during and after the shift. As we were driving out of Norwich, he asked if any of us were hungry, before driving into a KFC so we could spend the first hour on the clock eating chicken. I realised then that this job would be a lot less strenuous than I’d previously thought.

It turned out that the ease of the job all came down to whether you were “on-tracker”. Each team leader was meant to have a phone with a GPS tracking app so that the managers could keep an eye on things, making sure that we were actually doing our job. But it’s a little tricky to keep up smartphone payments on £35 a day, so there were plenty of team leaders – and their respective teams – who regularly found themselves “off-tracker”. This mostly meant doing stuff that didn’t involve doorstepping people for their debit card details.

My colleagues all had their favourite off-tracker activities – some would go to the beach and just watch the surf for a while, others would go to the arcade and one used to go to his ex-girlfriend’s house, ask her mum to warm him up some soup and continually overstay his welcome.

Most of my off-tracker time involved smoking weed and eating penny sweets outside Sainsbury’s, where whoever I was spending the day with would tell me their best off-tracker stories. One, for instance, involved one of the chuggers knocking on a door and being invited inside, which is rare if not completely unheard of. Once inside, he and the guy who owned the house chatted about Starship Troopers for a while, before the guy registered what my friend was wearing, pointed to his T-shirt and said, “Wait a minute – you’re wearing a badge. You’re not here to buy drugs?” He was representing a well known cancer charity, so he couldn’t buy anything at the time, but he got his number for later.

Of course, there were those who actually worked hard at the job, even when they were off-tracker – mostly people who couldn’t find stable employment elsewhere and were just trying provide for their families. The people who carried on working during their unsupervised shifts were more likely to be students, or artists and musicians who just needed the basic wage to keep them going while they finished up whatever breakthrough mixed-media collage or kraut-funk EP they were working on at the time.  

Then there were the lifers – people like Jacob, who had a pretty severe coke habit and the kind of competitive nature that would have been much more at home at a hedge fund firm than a job that mostly involves talking to pensioners. I suspected that he didn’t have much else going for him besides the fundraising, because beating other people’s sign-up numbers was all he talked about, and he began lying to people about where their money was going and how the sign-ups would work.

There were a few times during my tenure that we were dispatched to Great Yarmouth, known locally as “Yarmouth”, presumably because there’s nothing that great about the pier’s Chuckle Brothers performances and dying penny arcades. This was where I realised that Norfolk is not a good place to raise money for an international charity. Cancer charities and Barnardo's were generally well received, but Oxfam – and any other foreign-facing charity – almost always went down horribly.

One door that I knocked on in Great Yarmouth was answered – and quickly shut in my face – by a woman who told me she wasn’t going to be giving money to “brown people” any time soon. Another illuminated me to the fact that Africa – the entire continent of Africa – is "in the situation it’s in" because “they breed too much”.

Harry, one of the guys I used to work with, said it was this “heartbreaking” racism that eventually led to him leaving the job: “Once, one guy just leaned out his window and shouted, ‘Fuck Africa!’ at me. I wanted to burn that guy’s testicles.” 

It wasn’t all bad, though – we also met a guy who loudly said he wouldn’t give anything to Macmillan, before stepping out of his front door, pulling it closed and whispering, “I’ve donated everything I have to them, but my wife isn’t to know until I die.” Of course, this could have just been a ruse to get us to leave him alone, but it was a one of the more touching ones I heard if it was.

I also had more than one person cry and hug me on their doorstep, thanking me for coming round. I always felt slightly guilty in those scenarios, as I was technically only there to take their money, but I’d always make sure to talk to them for as long as I could. Collecting money for a cancer charity, you come across a lot of people who’ve been directly affected by the disease, and demonstrating that you give a shit is the least you can do for someone who, more often than not, didn’t appear to have much company the majority of the time.

The longer I worked the job, the more I started to see how closed-off and miserly East Anglia’s middle and upper classes could be. It’s been said before, but those with the most money are undoubtedly the least likely to give it away – investing their relative wealth into fences and CCTV cameras to keep their detached houses as severed from the wider community as they could.  

The most sign-ups (by a long shot) were from the estates circling whichever town we’d been dispatched to that particular day. One guy who didn’t appear to have anything to his name but a phone, two dogs and a mattress signed up almost instantly – a stark contrast to the fruitless 15 minutes spent outside a house boasting electronic gates, a convertible Mazda and a candle just inside the door that looked like it cost more than my entire education.  

Thinking about it all again a few months down the line, I’m hit with a weird sense of nostalgia for a job I always hated. Despite the shitty wages, endless walking and subsequent blood blisters, it’s rare that you get such an unfiltered insight into what people really think. We’re so used to palming off chuggers – just treating them like bucket-jiggling mannequin dickheads – that it creates a weird state of apathy when we do eventually interact with them.

In the same way that we don’t care what they think of us when we’re sometimes quite literally pushing them away, we also don’t care what they think of us when we’re speaking the truth. So we do speak the truth, unfiltered and uncensored. The racism hidden behind coastal townhouses is unleashed, before the philanthropy of the same town's most disadvantaged people is revealed. It took being on the other side of the bucket to realise this, but occupying that strange social hinterland between altruist and public nuisance actually provides you a pretty unique insight into the general British psyche.

It's just a shame that a lot of what you learn is so bleak – and that, between all the inadvertent counselling and off-tracker days, you don't actually end up raising a lot of money for the people you're being paid to raise money for.

More stuff about this kind of stuff:

Why the 'Cock in a Sock' Thing Is Vain Bullshit

It's Time to Make the Ultimate Sacrifice for Charity, Ladies

The Problem with Charity

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