Goodman: Charities should work on canvassing tactics

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Meredith Goodman, Columnist

Growing up, I always learned to smile and maybe even give a little wave at random people with whom I made eye contact on the streets. This strategy usually worked in my hometown of Austin, Texas, where most people would courteously smile back at me. But it has gotten me into trouble in Evanston and the Chicago area, where countless charity canvassers have harassed me when I have made the mistake of making eye contact.

My weekly trip to CVS has become perilous, filled with shouts of workers from children’s charities, environmental organizations and even a local church soliciting holiday donations. “Do you have a minute to save the children?” they loudly inquire as I scurry by the CVS storefront. “Do you have a minute to sign our petition?” environmental groups shout as I avert my eyes. Around Christmas, church children held a bucket up to me silently, making me feel guilty as I refused their donation and walked on by like Ebenezer Scrooge.

The worst instance was on Michigan Avenue last quarter. While walking to the El after an interview, I encountered a mob of workers from the Human Rights Campaign, an organization that supports LGBT rights. I curtly smiled at a female worker as I walked briskly to catch the train back to campus in time, which ended up being a huge mistake. The worker started pacing alongside me shouting, “Hey, where are you going? Can I come with you?” while shoving past the crowds. Although she may have thought it was a nice gesture to get me to sign her petition, I felt that she invaded my “bubble,” and that my personal space had been violated. I lost her at the crosswalk and didn’t look back.

I support LGBT rights, I generally try my hardest to preserve the environment and yes, I would like to take a minute to save the children. But when these canvassers harass me and make me feel awful for simply giving them eye contact, I end up ignoring the causes they so passionately care about. There has to be a way for charities to get the support they need without literally chasing people down on the streets.

But I do have to point out that the work of a charity canvasser can be quite difficult. I was complaining about this particular topic to some friends when one revealed she worked as a canvasser for one of these organizations one summer. She talked about the demands of the job and said canvassers would be fired if they didn’t hit their target of signatures or donations for a certain number of days.

She explained that any passersby that smiled or gave canvassers a slight amount of eye contact provided hope for these workers, who are often young people desperate to meet their quota for payment. By smiling and acknowledging the canvassers, I was unsuspectingly giving them the promise of a new signature or donation to cross off the list.

One charity this past weekend demonstrated how to ask for donations on the streets respectfully. Misericordia, a community that provides care for individuals with developmental disabilities, held its annual Candy Days donation drive April 26-27. Individuals from Misericordia and other volunteers were scattered in the streets of Evanston with brightly colored vests, waiting to trade donations for jelly beans.

I was not asked or yelled at once to donate. Had I not been in a rush, I would have gladly stopped and given some money to Misericordia. The volunteers and individuals were gracious and smiled and waved back at me, not even asking for money as I kept on walking.

I hope other charities can follow Misericordia’s example and trust that if pedestrians want to stop and donate or learn more about the cause, they will do so of their own accord. In the meantime, I will continue to avoid awkward eye contact on the streets of Evanston and stare at the ground as I make my dangerous trips to CVS.

Meredith Goodman is a Weinberg sophomore. She can be reached at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this letter, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected].