Emily the fundraiser breaks through

Let me tell you about Emily* the fundraiser.

A young woman knocked on my door one recent evening, part of a team going door-to-door canvassing for the Alzheimer’s Society. It was cold, it was dark, and a strong wind whipped down the street.

I opened the door and the young woman unveiled a thousand-watt smile.

“Hi. My name is Emily (keeping her prominently-labelled binder in view and pushing forward her name tage and identification).  “I’m here on behalf of the Alzheimer Society.  How are you tonight?”

She actually waited for a reply. I said “Really well. How are you?”

“I’m great – I’m really enjoying talking to people about something very cool. May I tell you about it?”

I agreed. And Emily launched into a crisp, concise and vivid description of the Society’s “Music and memory iPod Project.” (Not affiliated with or sponsored by Apple, by the way). Researchers and caregivers are seeing promising responses from people with dementia, when they hear music of their own era. Inexpensive MP3 players, and customized playlists make it easy to give every person his or her own unique experience.

The project was covered in The Toronto Star , so I knew a bit about it. We had an animated discussion about its merits for about two minutes. Then Emily made the ask: Would I consider becoming a monthly donor to the iPod project at $10 a month, which would make possible distribution of X number of iPods in a year.

I smiled and gave her my friendly automatic script for the door-to-door canvasser, cold caller, or the on-street solicitor: that I’m a fundraising consultant, that I appreciate what they’re trying to do, but I am very intentional about my giving, I have my own list of charities I support and I’m not adding to that list.

Before I met Emily, I would have said that without exception, such canvassers quit when they hear that. Emily is that exception. “If you help charities raise money then you know how important it is to get new people involved in this project.  This is a new initiative that could make a difference for people – some of them don’t even speak but when they hear the music they come alive. That’s what you’d be supporting.”

We always tell people not to argue when asking for a gift. KMA doesn't rpepare people for cold calls or door-to-door but the principle is the same – don’t start an argument.

But she wasn’t arguing: she was passionate and intense – she came across as completely captivated by the cause, its importance and its potential. Her earnest question seemed to require an answer.

“Emily, you’re right. But I have to make choices.” I left unspoken the implication that I would not be choosing The Alzheimer Society, another proven deflection. But she didn’t stop.

“I understand that. You can’t support everything. I just think that if you signed on for $10 a month you’d be very happy at the end of the year with what they’ve accomplished. And if you’re not you can cancel any time.” She made eye contact throughout – not a trace of aggression, or begging, or whining – just 100 per cent focus on the value proposition.

“Sorry Emily. I’m not taking on any new monthly donations for anyone.” But by now I wanted to reward Emily and The Alzheimer Society, for the clarity of the case and the ask, and the near-perfection of the interaction with Emily. So her next comment would be decisive one.

“OK. Thanks for listening and talking all this time. Is there anything you can do for the Alzheimer Society tonight?”

I decided to test her training one step further. “I’ll tell you what. I’ll make a cash gift right now.”

“Wow – that’s really great. But I’m not allowed to take cash. Cash can create problems sometimes.” And she’s right. Cash creates temptations for those with weak ethics,  puts the canvasser at risk, and complicates accounting and receipting.

But instead of saying “could you write a cheque or use a credit card?” she said nothing: intuitively, it seems, she left it up to me to commit myself.

“Can you take a credit card?” She lit up and said “Sure” and then, downcast, “Oh no – I’m out of that form. I know I’m asking a lot but could you possibly let me come back with the form – I just have to find one of my team and get the form.”

I agreed and she sprinted down the street. She returned in six minutes, breathless and wind-blown. I invited her in to complete the paper work and we concluded our transaction.

Of course, Emily didn’t actually work for the Alzheimer’s Society. As she filled out the form, I confirmed that she was a student and worked for a reputable company that recruits, trains and deploys people for public fundraising.  The Alzheimer Society would be a client of that company, which helps them find new donors.

Why did I give? Undoubtedly it in part because she was young and personable, and doing a very tough job on a cold night. In her I saw a glimpse of my own daughter who did some street fundraising and phone work for the same company.

Many people find this kind of solicitation intrusive, or feel guilty about not giving, but neither bothers me. And I have heard both excellent and badly-mangled pitches at my door and on the sidewalks. My orientation however, usually only means I'm friendly, polite and empathetic.

But Emily, though she made full use of her high-wattage smile, went well beyond simply being personable and generating sympathy for her age and work. She communicated as a true believer, without embarrassment or apology. Although insistent, she was respectful and uttered not one syllable and made no facial expression to stir any sense of guilt over saying no. I gave because she communicated that, although I had no obligation, I might miss out on something good if she didn’t give it her best shot.

We always say to clients “Feel free to ask” and we say to donors “Feel free to say no.”  Emily gets that, and that got her a gift.

- Larry Matthews

* Name changed to preserve privacy


PS – Turns out that Emily was in the final hour of her employment as a canvasser, and was moving on to another job. She is studying to be a writer. She said she loved the iPod project and the cause of serving people with dementia, but her favourite assignment was canvassing for mental health charities, because she is close to people who need that help and so she found that motivating. I wondered to myself what she’s like for a cause she personally identifies with!  I told her I write a blog on fundraising, and she agreed I could profile the conversation and take a photo. As she left I offered her some leftover Halloween candy. She asked if she could take enough for her other three team members, and left with my gift, eight chocolate bars, and a smile. As I closed my door I heard her knock on the one next to mine.

For more information on the iPod Project.