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Richard Swerdlow (Richard Swerdlow)

A new trend in fund-raising isn’t going down well with Richard Swerdlow. Here’s his Perspective.

Do you have a minute to save the environment? How about two minutes for healthcare? Endangered species?

Every Bay Area resident knows the feeling; walking along a sidewalk when a question like this is tossed at you from a stranger holding a clipboard.

These young, hip clipboard-carrying canvassers wear bright t-shirts or vests with a logo of some charity. Part grass-roots volunteer, part TV huckster selling slice-and-dice cooking gadgets, they block every passerby with a crazed smile, a wave, and a question. If they trap you, you’re asked to sign up for a monthly donation.

“Chuggers" -- slang for charity muggers -- have become so prevalent in some neighborhoods, everybody has an escape plan. Pretend to get a phone call, look confused and gesture you don't speak English, look mean and keep walking.


It’s okay. Your sidewalk canvasser might not even care about the cause on their t-shirt. Behind the clipboard curtain are professional fundraising companies paying these young people to don t-shirts and flag down pedestrians.

These companies earn a large percentage of money donated. And the chuggers themselves, who are not volunteers for the charity on the t-shirt, despite their activist appearance, earn a commission for donations. Some chuggers actually change causes the same workday - green t-shirt save the environment in the morning, blue t-shirt civil liberties in the afternoon.

Ambush fundraising has become more than a nuisance. Cities from London to Sydney are looking at limiting sidewalk solicitation. I know women who have felt unsafe when aggressively obstructed by chuggers on sidewalks.

Times are tough and charities need to look at their bottom line. My bottom line: I don't like being accosted on the street. If I want to donate, I'll do it without some kid in a vest harassing me on the sidewalk. And with fundraising companies taking a big chunk of each donation, your curb contribution isn’t doing much. I may be biased, but donations where 100% benefits the non-profit are a far more transparent approach.

So, yes. I have a minute to save the environment. I'm just not going to save it on the sidewalk.

With a Perspective, I'm Richard Swerdlow.

Richard Swerdlow teaches in the San Francisco Unified School District.