Beggars on Commission: Life of A Chugger

You know those annoying bastards in neon bibs that bother you in the street for charity? I was one.
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You know those annoying bastards in neon bibs that bother you in the street for charity? I was one.

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I'm fundraising in Ashford. Someone has thrown a stunned pigeon at me but I'm in high spirits nontheless. I approach a man ambling through his early twenties and ask him if he's ever supported a charity. "My mum does." he says. "Fantastic," I exclaim and ask him which one. He then gives me his mum's name.

I'm a street fundraiser. I chug. I mug. I'm human spam. A charity monkey. A beggar on commission. A public nuisance. I won't assume anything here, you may want us dead, you may see us a necessary evil or you may think we're little neon saints. You may fall into the small percentage who sees me, and apparently only me, as the first port of call when trying to buy guns on The Strand. Whatever your view, I've probably asked you or someone you know to talk to me. Greenpeace have denounced street fundraising as counter-productive and will no longer raise money this way. It's a method so derided and despised certain life-long supporters feel it necessary to cancel their donations in protest. Something in our psyche finds the idea of soliciting support from strangers simply too vulgar and intrusive to condone, even for our favourite cause. The fundraising budget could be spent in many ways, this way works best, raising around four to six times as much as we cost. But we get in the way.

The more insipid ones may last just a week but they leave an indelible mark on the public consciousness and wear us down, for I too walk these streets of London and will freely admit to crossing the street to avoid some of the freaks and losers I've seen lolling by the railings like valium addicts. Between jobs and in need of some cash, they stand in the street, simply waiting for the session to end and if a conversation does find its way into their daydream, they will convince the interested party of their amateurishly hidden agenda. Of this percentage, I am ashamed. Of the remaining majority, I am proud.

The human psychology of street fundraising is fascinating. Why should one person stop when 99 have just managed to convey with one glance the sort of hatred and contempt usually reserved for scrofulous sex-tourists? As importantly, is it wrong to ask someone in case their dog has just died? Or are they more likely to stop if their dog has just died? Or should you follow them home and kill their dog?

If you do stop, we will invariably cover why I'm doing this, whether I've considered further education as I seem reasonably bright, or what my sideline is. There is an eager parade of actors, singers, writers, jugglers and professional do-gooders lining the streets six days a week in the name of benevolence. For the most part, though, we're just earning a crust (organic, mutli-seeded, wheat-free, of course) and are thankful to have a job we don't dread going to.

I’m a street fundraiser. I chug. I mug. I’m human spam. A charity monkey. A beggar on commission.

When it dawns on you, at a certain age, that you must spend the majority of each day doing something for money, that this enterprise should have been decided upon and invested in at a perversely early age and that most people get the fear on a Sunday and try to escape every Friday, it is easy to panic. It is evidently quite a popular little crisis and there are literally hundreds of us, who go from university to the street via the twenty-something career swamp, adding our particular brand of individuality to this clipboard wielding virus.

In training they tell you, "People don't sign up to the charity, they sign up to you." It is hard not to take it heart, then, when it becomes apparent your personality has proved too hefty a counter-argument for the likes of a "child dies every day eight seconds from drinking dirty water." When someone says no to the deaf-blind babies it is not because the public is an apathetic human soup to be waded through at the peril of one's own will to live, no, it is because you have commodified your personality and will, should circumstances conspire against you, turn your weary charisma up to eleven and spray gun the average shopper with enough clowning and caricature to have every redcoat within spitting distance avert their eyes in shame.

Our training covers face to face fundraising and a specific charity. We tailor our fundraising technique to suit our personalities and discuss the pro's and con's of street fundraising. "Have you got a minute?" works for some people, for me it works like a sedative. It is easy to get caught up in the finer points of approaching the public but to guarantee a productive day, one you'll enjoy, it is a question of belief. Once you are standing in the centre of Oxford Street, dressed badly and without protection from the creeping floods, it is important to remain calm. It is equally important not to ensnare any willing Londoner in an in depth discussion of fair trade policies or NHS funding. We are encouraged to be concise and to be ourselves. The quaint little villages on the outskirts of London, these places can take a discussion exceeding five minutes. Central London likes to be on its way.

I've ordered food in almost every small town and major city in England. I've used more public toilets than a heroin addict with a free bus pass. I've been around. In a year and a half, I've binged on human behaviour and these days, as my job description reads team leader, I turn my attention away from the public and toward the fundraiser. My job is to take a team to one of the many pavements of the south east and ensure each fundraiser is happy and suitably motivated to ask 1000 people to talk to them in the hope 5 will give £1.25 a week to charity. Out of this 1000, around 400 will say nothing. 200 will swear, 300 will create an excuse so absurd I'll assume I'm being filmed and the remaining 95 will stop and offer us cash (which we can't accept) or sex (the good looking ones offer cash).

The bottom line is, if someone didn't do this every day, as is only possible if you are paid (or rich), charities would help fewer people. Only a few of us stay on the street for more than a year, the turnover is staggeringly high, some get promoted, some don't even complete the training. It's not a job for everyone. When you find yourself enjoying the advanced stages of trench foot and wearing someone else's spit, it may occur to you to quit this chugging business and take comfort in an office, with central heating and a stapler with your name on it. Yet I would recommend a week's street fundraising to everyone; there is an incredible amount of freedom and you needn't compromise yourself, as although we must each exchange something for our necessary wage, it need not be our heart and soul. Just, in the case of street fundraising, a little bit of dignity. But, as Hans Blix's favourite saying goes "The noble art of losing face will someday save the human race." So come and say hello.....and for the record, I'm on £9.34 an hour, no commission.

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