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The Rhetoric of Charity Declining

December 13, 2012

I recently had a most fascinating stint working as an on-the-street fundraiser for a major international charity. Suffering children in developing countries was the name of the game. Those posters with beautiful, wide-eyed kids can be hard to ignore. As a fundraiser, the experience has been an eye-opener to a specific type of social argument.

I will be the first to recognize what a nuisance street-level salesmen and campaigners can be, battling for your attention and wallet content. I am as guilty as anyone of ignoring and declining for-profit and non-profit offers thrown in my face without warning. Nevertheless, we fundraisers occupy your public spaces and sometimes (ouch) your daily commutes. And for yours truly, amateur anthropologist, this was a golden opportunity to study the ways people reject these pleas.

Whereas most passers-by choose to simply ignore fundraisers, there is some creativity in the way people decline our kind offer to seize their cash. Other than a straightforward “no thank you” or “sorry”, I find their responses can be grouped into kinds of countering moves.

  1. Body language
  2. Making own contributions known
  3. Citing own worries

1. The largest category of responses we get is that of body language, an actual physical move to counter the argument. Walking to the other side of the street, ducking into shops, pretending to be on the phone, shaking the head – all quite easy to interpret. The rhetoric of the hand also belongs in this category: The outstretched arm with the outwards-facing palm speaks for itself. As does the wagging finger and the occasional rude gesture.

I usually interpret these actions as meaning people don’t have time, are busy, or simply not interested. They physically act out the “I’m all set” argument we are frequently told. However, I also see it as a way to prevent the images of destitute children from getting too close – literally keeping them at an arm’s length. Confronting suffering can be a tough exercise, especially if you are in no place to support these little guys. I see it less as an “if I don’t see it, it doesn’t exist” attitude, and more as an indication of the discomfort we are producing. Our place of work straddles the public and personal space. As a result, we are bound to provoke some sort of emotional response in the passer-by.

2. In the realm of words, a common response I observed was guilt-induced listing of one’s own contributions. The guilt fundraisers manage to bring about in completely innocent strangers is palpable. The counter-move: let us know which altruistic, philanthropic behaviors they are already engaging in. They

  • List the charities they donate to, or
  • Inform us of the selfless professions they belong to: social workers, doctors, nurses, and teachers.

The latter is always interesting, seeing as there is usually no direct link between what they do and what we do.

3. “I have my own worries”. “I’m much poorer than those guys”. “Why doesn’t anyone support my children?” “That should be my picture on that pamphlet”. “I can’t even take care of my own kids.”

The last comment is hopefully a gross exaggeration, but you would be surprised at the number of times I have heard it. Such citing of one’s own problems was another consistent counter. In the current economy, Americans’ own financial struggles cannot be downplayed. However, the irony of carrying expensive purses, wearing 200-dollar boots, and fondling an iPhone while professing one’s poverty is not lost on the fundraiser. Poverty is for many Westerners either an abstraction or simply a state of “not having money”. Apologies for the clichés, but that is not the absence of a source of clean water, shoes, shelter, or your next meal. As you may be able to tell, this is my least favorite way of saying thanks but no thanks.

In juxtaposition to the questionable claims of poverty is a more miscellaneous group, a list that offered an endless source of entertainment: “I don’t like children”. “They should use birth control and not take our money”. The honesty here, if not morality, is appreciated.

You may find fundraisers passionate and important, cute in that idealistic and naïve way (“aaaw, you actually think that’s going to change anything”), plain obnoxious, or just annoying in the way mosquitoes are. Any way you see it, your interaction with us is worth a thought or two.

‘Tis the season of giving after all, and no matter deep your pocket or open your hand, there’s always more requested than can be granted.  So what’s your strategy for saying no? Meanwhile, next on my reflection list: write a blog piece about the rhetoric fundraisers employ to make you stop and talk to them. This is a sales job, after all.

If you want to know more:

To learn more:

  • Some fun statistics on charitable giving, reviews and ratings of organizations, and much more:
  • Feeling charitable for the holidays? Here is a sample of sources of non-material gifts, assembled by New York Times’ Nicholas D. Kristof.
One Comment leave one →
  1. December 22, 2012 7:11 pm

    When entering a business with a Christmas bell-ringer outside, I usually completely oust them with body language, knowing that a silent turn of my head is probably less irritating for the ringer than a rude comment or a point about how that charity is based in a religion I can’t support. I can’t think of a ‘good’ way to turn down a ringer any more than I can think of a good way to ask strangers for money. Both are trying to make an argument with as little rheotirc as possible: one with a bell and another with a brisk pace.

    If a charity is arguing for human kindness, perhaps a more complex rhetoric is required to inspire the casual passerby to understand (and perhaps help end?) the suffering of others. Charity campaigns are usually focused on making money, not sharing the issue or educating the public.

    What would change if understanding, and not money, became the primary goal?

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