Chirpy fundraisers with their messenger bags and wide smiles become a constant source of ire for many hustling New Yorkers in the warmer months. As a self-proclaimed do gooder, I join the club of those who cannot stand being asked to donate in public.
"Can you spare a few minutes?" is how they always start. "No, thanks," I muster as I rush through bustling Broadway to my office building on Whitehall Street. As a 30 year old freelance writer/legal professional working in downtown, my life entails a three-hour commute to and from my Long Island home, evening dog walks, weekly writing group meetings and outings with friends on weekends. I also volunteer for causes I believe in - environmental and human rights- thanks to my Hindu upbringing through which I learned that gaining good karma may lead to fruitful future lives. During my visits back home to India, where sadly it is all too common to be chased by begging kids, I always make sure those who approach me get either a piece of bread or at least a twenty rupee note. But back in the Big Apple, other than donating a few dollars to a homeless women or handicapped persons, I refrain from signing up to support charities. I hate being bombarded by 20 somethings with clipboards and aggressive philanthropic pitches on the sidewalk, although eight years ago I myself went door to door soliciting for the Sierra Club. I sometimes wonder if I sold my reincarnated soul to the corporate devil.
In the past few months, two earnest folks from Children International have reclaimed their spot between Exchange Place and Wall Street. They zealously try to melt the hearts of financial district white collars with tales of abandoned children in countries like India and Africa. These paid representatives who chase people at busy crossroads want a yearly commitment. Whenever I encounter them, sometimes near the raging bull or by Union Square or some unsuspecting location, it becomes a hide and seek dance that involves avoiding eye contact and using street carts and other people as barriers. I often pretend to listen to my iPod or pace myself so I pass them when they are already immersed in their spiels with other pedestrians. But the guilt that almost always follows after avoiding these personable idealists is draining. The fact that I was in their well-worn shoes many moons ago and got fired for not collecting enough money doesn't help.
Back in 2002, I was a nomadic utopian who traveled to California to save the trees. I was part of a small army of Sierra Club door-to-door solicitors. Estimated weekly salary was $400. For a fresh out of college newbie, $1600 a month was not a lot of money but was enough to get started. Little did I know that I wouldn’t be making any money if I didn’t bring in the green. I got fired my second day when I raised only $50 after a grueling 10-hour day walking up and down steep hills going from one fancy door to another in a glitzy neighborhood of Marin County. The next day, I applied for a legal position and have never looked back.
A week ago, as I was returning to my desk job from Borders opposite Trinity Church during my lunch break, a young man, much like my former self, finally broke the barriers I put up and succeeded in engaging me with his pitch. All the weeks of ignoring these enthusiastic fellows finally took its toll. I was also curious to hear what he had to say. “Would you like to sponsor a starving child in Chile? It doesn’t cost much per month,” he urged. I could just sense his enthusiasm mixed in with the hope of meeting his daily quota. I kindly refused, saying I recently contributed to Save the Children in their Japan tsunami/earthquake relief effort. He looked dejected, his shoulders slumped and the grin disappeared. Then I noticed the look he shot at the new hardcover I was holding. I knew what he was thinking. She could buy a 30 dollar book, but not give a fraction of that to feed a child. I had the same feeling too when people shut their doors on my face. They had opulent homes but cared little about the outdoors. I refrained from saying anything more, lest I get beguiled into donating against my good judgment. I simply smiled and said I had to get back.
As I walked away fighting guilt, I had to remind myself that like so many other kind hearted New Yorkers, I give back in my own way and in my free time. I spend Saturdays at food pantries and soup kitchens, organize fundraisers, go on service trips, and securely donate online to the non-profits I believe in. Even just helping someone carry a stroller up the subway stairs makes me feel good. But as a busy New Yorker, I still like to take a walk down the block without being harassed, even if it makes me look insensitive to those less fortunate. Sometimes I think I am doing these street fundraisers a favor by not engaging with them. Perhaps one day they too will look back and realize there are better ways to support causes close to their heart. Or maybe that's just another excuse on my part.