Charlotte Ashlock

Life is About Asking for Money

December 3, 2011 Social Change 5

The most effective pleas to donate money to charity will seem like heart-felt petitions from someone who is a person just like you. Professional fundraisers work very hard to foster that illusion when they write their propaganda materials. The truth is, for all its appearance of being spontaneous & heartfelt, fundraising is a very sophisticated art and science.

Working as a Web Associate for a network of environmental and public interest groups, I am a researcher for that science. We have 150 websites which gives us a lot of scope for experimentation. You divide the websites into experimental and control groups, and then you try changing different things: What happens if I make the Donate button bigger? Change its color? Move it over to the right? What happens if I update my blog more often, do I get more engagement with my site? Does that lead to more money? Etc, etc. etc.

And we’re not the only people doing this research by any means. There’s a whole community. We read each other’s White Papers; we share terminology. The “penetration rate” is the number of site visitors who make it to the donate page. The “close rate” is the number of people who actually donate money after reading our donation page. We speak a language of percentages and dollar signs. The romantic in me resents this. I want to think the only thing that raises more money is more passion and more belief, having the Right on your side. But I have to admit, I have another side which is absolutely fascinated by this new way of thinking. It’s made me see the world in a different way.

You see, Life is about asking for money. Most of us don’t have to deal with that on a regular, everyday basis. Most of us ask for money only a few time in our lives: during job interviews, we ask to receive salaries in return for our abilities and skills. Other people ask for money constantly; anyone in sales, for example. I would lump fundraisers into the category of salespeople, too, except what they’re selling is the ability to make a difference. (You can argue about whether that’s more or less honest than selling something like toothpaste.) Certainly, as I’ve discussed above, the sophistication of your marketing makes a big difference in both.

My office is on Boston Commons, near the Park Street T station, which is a favorite place for beggars to work the crowd. You get to recognize some familiar faces. I’ve been fascinated by beggars lately, and not just for the usual reasons. Yes there’s compassion for their plight, and the usual frightened awe that any member of the human race could descend to such dire straits. But that’s not why I’ve been watching them, listening them, paying careful attention to what they’re saying. It’s because I’ve noticed some interesting parallels between their profession and mine.

I help raise money for a whole string of grand environmental and social causes. The beggars raise money for only one cause: their continued existence. I have 150 websites, developed and maintained by a bevy of servers, a legion of content-updating activists, and a cadre of dedicated programmers. The beggars have only their faces, and their voices. But despite the difference in scope and tools, the beggars and I have the same goal: to make people care. To distract them from their busy lives, and make them decide to spend some of their hard-earned cash on something that will never benefit them directly.

I think in the age-old task of “getting people to give a shit” there are only a handful of fundamental strategies. Watching the beggars gave me insight into each one of them. There is this terrible beggar who likes to stand in the middle of Winter Street. He has a wild scruffy beard, looks like he hasn’t bathed in months, and his eyes point in different directions. He stands in pedestrian traffic with one arm held out as if to block the way of passers-by. His appearance is frankly quite frightening, and he drones almost constantly in the voice of a sick bullfrog, “Can anyone spare some chaaaaaaaaaange. Can anyone spare some chaaaaaaaaaange.”

Strategy Number One) Annoy people until they give you money to make you go away. If I had to guess, I would say this is the least successful of the strategies. This beggar must raise money from time to time, because I occasionally see him drinking a cup of coffee. But I think that people’s first instinct is to avoid him and they only give him money if avoiding him becomes impossible.

We do use the “annoy people,” strategy, but it’s more effective at raising signatures than raising money. I don’t think its quite powerful enough to translate into dollars. I think of the time when I met my boyfriend Ben and his friends at Boston Commons for a picnic. I said, “C’mon, let’s find a nice spot.” They responded glumly, “We have to finish this first.” I said, “What are you doing?” and then I saw one of the canvassers from my office had gotten ahold of them. (I didn’t know her personally, but I knew the brochures she was carrying had been designed by my coworkers.)

She was making them sign “It’s Time to Update The Bottle Bill,” postcards to send to their senator. They didn’t have any hard surfaces to sign on, so they were using each other’s backs as clipboards. We couldn’t escape to eat our picnic until each postcard had been duly signed. As we headed off to eat our apples, donuts, and chicken-salad sandwiches, one of Ben’s friends remarked, “Oh my goodness. That woman just CARED SO MUCH! I didn’t understand a word of what she was talking about, but she just cared so much.”

“Yeah, what was that all about?” I said, playing dumb.

“To tell the truth,” Ben’s friend responded, chuckling “I really have no idea what I just signed.” (Update the Bottle Bill was a MASSPIRG campaign, and I always think our PIRG campaigns are harder for people to understand than our environmental ones.) But anyway, so much for Strategy Number One. You do get engagement, but I don’t think its very real engagement.

Strategy Number Two is best exemplified by the woman who sits on an overturned bucket right beside the stream of commuters flowing out of the Park Street T Station. She has this amazing woolen hat which is decorated with feathers she has woven between the strands of yarn; maybe 25 feathers in various shades of black and brown and gray. Her call is very simple: she repeats, “I need food money today! I need food money today!” in a sing-song tone of voice. I would say her strategy is probably the core strategy used by our organization: Draw Attention to the Need.

The first thing she does is catches your attention with her feathered bonnet. We might catch your attention with a beautifully designed website, an intriguing email subject line, or a cutely smiling canvasser, but all of us in the Biz have some kind of hook. Once we’ve hooked their attention, we follow up by explaining what happens if you DON’T act. The beggar’s message is simple: “If you don’t act, I won’t eat,” is the essence of her song. Our message varies from campaign to campaign, but its usually something along the lines of, “If you don’t act, pollution will the fill the earth and corporations will rule the world,” sometimes more implicit, sometimes more explicit, but always broadcasting that message of urgency and need.

The third strategy is Flattery. The beggar who used flattery works deeper in Boston Commons, so I haven’t seen him as often. In fact, I’ve only seen him once. But I think I will always remember him, because he wasn’t grim like the other beggars: he had a big sunny smile and frank honest eyes. Although scruffy, he wasn’t repulsively bedraggled, and he sat in the park singing like he hadn’t a care in the world. “Oh what a beautiful day here in Boston Commons,” he sang. Then he saw me walking by and said to me, “What a gorgeous smile you have ma’am! It’s such a pleasure to see a smile like that! Can you spare some change?” Although I didn’t give him any change, I came much closer than I had with the other two. I found myself involuntarily returning his smile, and responding to his positive attitude.

I’m sure we do use Flattery as a strategy in my company, its just a less common approach that Draw Attention to the Need. I can imagine them sitting in a high-level donor meeting, with someone who is really rolling in the dough, looking earnestly into their eyes and saying, “We know you’re the kind of person who cares deeply about the environmental cause.” If you make someone feel that they are special, unique, and wonderful, they’re more likely to buy into your beliefs & worldview.

I wish I could ask the beggars what their average daily takings are, and compare the cash value difference between their strategies. It would be interesting to see who had the highest penetration rate, and who had the highest close rate. But I still haven’t shared the killer strategy with you.

Let me tell you about the one time this year I DID actually give money to a beggar. Why did I? Well, for one thing, he didn’t seem like a beggar. He seemed like an ordinary person who was very much ashamed to be asking for money in a crowded subway car. He was early twenties, unshaven, had one of those cheesy T-shirts covered with flame designs and was lugging a giant backpack.

He told us how he’d been living homeless for years. Recently he’d re-established contact with a member of his family: his Grandma. His Grandma had promised to help him turn his life around: help him find a job, find his own place. He just needed to reach her. To travel to where his Grandma lived, he needed to buy a bus ticket. The bus ticket cost $28.95, and the bus left at 10pm. He needed to raise $28.95 by 10pm, or his chance to meet his Grandma and turn his life around would be lost forever. His Grandma would wait at the Greyhound station, expecting him to arrive, and when he didn’t, she would be struck by the last final conviction of his unreliability, perhaps give up on him forever; so he feared. “And I feel like a moron, standing here in the subway saying this, but its my only chance. Can someone, please, please give me some money?”

Ha ha, you laugh, reading. Ha ha, you say. Likely story. But you weren’t there. You didn’t hear the way he said it. And I believe to this day that young man was telling the truth. There were just too many specific details for it to be a lie: the exact names of the different homeless shelters he’d lived, the exact price of the bus ticket, and the final convincing detail, his very real embarrassment with speaking out in public.

And if it was a lie, he deserved a tip for being such a good actor and telling such a good story.

I caught his eye, and beckoned him over. I took out five dollars. I pressed it into his hand and said, “good luck.” It took him a moment. It was like he didn’t believe I was really giving it to him. Then when he took it, he was overcome with joy. “Thank you, thank you, thank you so much, this is really a significant amount, it really is.” I could see him doing the math, measuring my five dollars against the price of his bus ticket, against how much time he had left to raise money. Then he yelped for joy, “I’m really going to get there!” When the subway stopped, he ran to the next car, the next group of people, with the boisterous energy of hope.

Well, to return to the rational, analytical side of my nature, what were this young man’s fundraising strategies?

      1. He told a good story with plenty of detail.
      2. It was easy to identify with his plight.
      3. He made you feel that your money would make a drastic change in his life, not just preserve the status quo (I think this is probably the biggest reason I gave money to him.)
      4. He had a deadline, which gave us a sense of urgency.
      5. He had a specific $ goal he needed to reach for his dream to happen.
      6. He apologized for intruding on us and said, “I know I sound like a moron.”
      7. He was profusely grateful.

Yet even with all that, he only got one person out of fifty in that subway car to acknowledge he existed. Getting people to care is not an easy task. Most of us have too much to care about already: our families. Our jobs. Our friends. Our hobbies. Our bills. Taken all together, these things consume an enormous amount of emotional energy. That’s why its amazing people look beyond themselves at all. It’s amazing that people do give money. It’s amazing an organization like mine can exist.

I began by saying Life was about asking for money, but now I’ve changed my mind.   Asking for money is how we SUSTAIN our lives, but its not what life is about.  Life is about how we sometimes give away our money, time, and attention, even though we don’t have to.

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5 Responses

  1. Daniel Ashlock says:

    I think you have an excellent analogy there, between fund raising and beggars. Its persuasive and your examples match up the strategies. The only one I didn’t see was double teaming – are there any beggars that work in pairs? In any case another excellent blog.

    If it is a comfort, the research techniques you’re using can also be used to find disease genes or design trusses to support a building.

  2. Anonymous says:

    Good one!

    A few months ago, on my way to Bible Study from the parking lot, a young woman approached me -late teens, early 2os maybe; looked remarkably like Aletha at the same age; nicely dressed in a casual student way; and quite upset; someone had just stolen her purse, and she didn’t have money for the train fare back to her parents’ home north of the city; could I possibly spare her some money? Anything would help, she just needed $25. I gave her a couple of toonies, and she was so relieved and grateful.

    About two weeks later, when I was again on my way to Bible Study from the parking lot, she approached me again. She didn’t recognize me. Someone had just stolen her purse and she didn’t have money for the train fare back to her parents’ home …

    I didn’t give her money twice, but I’m not sorry for the toonies; I’m sure she needed it for something, and she deserved points for imagination.

    One strategy you left out is “shame” — there’s a reason Toronto’s beggars like to hang out around condo entrances and liquor or high-end clothing stores. When you’ve just come out from your comfortable warm home or have bought some luxury, it’s harder to tell yourself you can’t afford it. I suppose the fundraising equivalent is “for the price of a daily coffee, you can support a starving child in … “.

  3. Anonymous says:

    The lady at Park Street is a fucking piece of shit bum. She is an eyesore, earsore and ruins the city.

    She is ugly, loud and fucking lazy. Let’s hope she gets a job and learns to shut her ugly face.

    • Why does she bother you so much? It’s interesting to see that degree of dislike.

      • Anonymous says:

        As I said before:
        She is an eyesore and an earsore.

        She is perfectly capable of physically working but chooses to spend her life bothering people for money.

        I hope people stop giving her money so she learns to be productive to get money to buy food, instead of screaming like a baby.

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