Sympathy Racketeering: Why harassing people on the street is a bad strategy for a non-profit

If you live in New York City, one of the skills you hone over time is avoiding people who approach you on the street trying to hand you a flyer, distract you for a bump and run pickpocket scheme, or tell you their life story for some change.  It’s not because you’re mean or unsympathetic—it’s just that there are so many of them, that if you stopped and gave everyone their due time, you’d never get anywhere, and you’d wind up with a fistful of random coupons you’ll never use.

The worst offenders have to be the non-profit street teams.  I really don’t see how they’re effective at all.  What is the conversion rate on donations?  Do they even average one per day?  Not only do they seem like they don’t work, but they have a terrible relationship with their potential constituents.

“Dear non-profit street teams…  Please stop trying to go out of your way to make me feel like a terrible human being for not having time for you or enthusiasm for your cause.”

And the worst part?  I *am* actually a terrible human being to these people—because they force you into it.  I avoid eye contact with them in hopes they won’t target me.  I pretend they don’t even exist sometimes.  I nearly hit a guy the other day who put his hand on me.  (Note to street teams—do not put your hands on a black belt from behind.  You really don’t want to tangle with natural reflexes.)

The funny thing is, I actually do a fair amount of volunteering and charitable giving.  I run the Brooklyn Bridge Park Kayaking program, which covers kids *and* the environment.  I raised $3k last year through my blog via Donor’s Choose.  I give to my schools.  I try to contribute to some of my friends’ run for charity fundraising.  I even play dodgeball and softall in a league that donates money to charity.  My winning softball team this summer raised $500 for the American Cancer Society and I donated a bunch of clothing and some money to the Techies Give Back clothing drive.

So when you approach me on the street and say, “Don’t you care about children?” or “Is your meeting so important that you can’t spare a minute for the environment?” you’re taking a person who actively tries to do positive things for the world around them and you’re making them feel terrible.  What kind of strategy is that? 

Everyday, for every person the street teams sign up, they alienate like 100 people, causing them to completely tune out your message.  Is that really the desired effect?

For the most part, everyone on a Manhattan sidewalk is going somewhere—and in a hurry?  Why are they in such a hurry?  They’re lingering at their front doors to kiss a loved one or borrowing 5 minutes they really don’t have to feed their baby breakfast.  They’re squeezing in a call to a parent.  They’re RSVPing to a close friend’s engagement party before they run out to lunch.  They’re trying to make it on time to a job interview—their tenth in the last two weeks.  People aren’t necessarily so rushed and busy because they’re trying to get more money for themselves—most of them are doing it because they’re trying make a better life for someone else.  They’re trying to be there for everyone else in their lives in addition to making it in the working world.  Truly selfish people who live for themselves have plenty of time.  Their isn’t enough work to do in the world to occupy so much of your day that you don’t have two minutes to talk about the environment.  Most people on the street don’t have two minutes because they’re trying to get out of work early today to see the last quarter of their kid’s basketball game.

So, stop guilting people, diving in front of them to stop them from where they’re going, or saying stuff like “I’m here…I’m a person!”  When you do that, you don’t acknowledge that I’m a person, too—and not just a target—a fish to reel in.  I have responsibilities to the people around me—to promises made to be at a certain place at a certain time, to making family phonecalls, to read the pitch deck of an entrepreneur who has sunk their whole 401k into their prototype.  My life is no more important than the next person’s—but I can’t just dismiss it and waive what it asks of me away like it doesn’t exist.  You want just two minutes, but so does my 92 year old grandmother whose phonecall I need to respond to.. So does my brother who lives in Tampa.  Guess who gets them.  Not you—because you don’t care who I am or what I have to give, so long as it’s a check.  You don’t care about the causes I support unless they’re yours.  You think I’m aloof, smug, self-important.  I think that non-profit logo on your jacket makes you think you’re a better person than I am—like you’re on a mission to save the world from evil rich people like me.  I suspect that your parents are paying your rent.  Perhaps you should ask them for money that I don’t have, as I’m digging out from trying to start a company.

I am not rich.  I try to make the world a better place, too.  I’m busy living for others, and honestly, I’d rather not write my credit card number down on a piece of paper and hand it to a stranger.