Accosted in the name of altruism: the charity collectors conundrum

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t hate charities.

Okay, arguably the worst possible way to start an article, but that sentence fragment will make a lot of sense later on.

I’m a big fan of charity and our endless, selfless desire to help others, but that doesn’t mean I need you (i.e. charity collectors) to stop me in the middle of the street and greet me like an old friend.

(Eds note: And Nick’s not the only one – remember our very own Alexandra Tselios talking this a couple weeks ago on TBS?)

For the record, we’re not friends, we’ve never been friends and we’re never going to be friends. The only reason I know your name is because you shouted it at me as I was busy frantically trying to untangle my headphones.

I wasn’t doing that to satiate my strong, almost endless desire to listen to Blurred Lines; it was because I didn’t want to talk to you.

The body of a second-year university student or one-year-tourist-visa-traveller, the boundless energy of a three-month-old puppy on speed and the mouth of a Yorkshire cab driver – that’s what seems to make up your average sidewalk charity hawker. An arsenal of rapid handshakes, fluorescent shirts and full-toothed grins bestow these rascals with an imposing force. They breathe guilt and are seasoned veterans of the disapproving stare.

In my years of personal study of how to avoid them, I have identified three major recognisable and effective techniques they use in getting you to do what, deep down, you know you should.

1. Accessible Demeanour

Their first point of attack. Be it through a winning smile or an outstretched hand, their perky presence and resonating “Hey there, how has your day been?” is enough to leave anyone’s brain racing for the most convenient exit strategy. Some amateurs will start off with a cheerful “Hi, how’re you?” but soon learn that it only gives us a chance to fire off a quick “Fine, thank you” before pointing towards the imaginary train we’re already running late for.

However, the skilled vulture will start with a handshake to pull you in while drawing you into the depths of dreaded small talk. This is harder to get away from – avoiding a handshake requires you to do a dance around the person’s arm, or even gently brush it aside, which they know people would rather avoid more than just shaking the hand itself.


2. Accents and Attractiveness

It’s not a coincidence that the average sidewalk solicitor looks like they’ve just flown in from Miami, having been fed on a diet of grapes and ultraviolet light. Hand-picked from a Schoolies promotional leaflet, only the most beautiful make it through to become the charitable denizens we know and tolerate. Again, this has to do with accessibility – we are naturally drawn towards them in some unknown desire to impress them, compete with them or to be accepted by them. That ‘just got out of bed’ look took three hours to achieve and cost more in hair-gel than the collectors make in commission.

Another weapon often used by these beautiful buzzards is their range of melodious, foreign accents. A lot of students from the world over, but it seems in particular from the UK and Ireland, find their way to Australia and in need of money to fork out on a three pack-a-day Jaffa Cake diet. Their fast, often unintelligible accents offer an exotic spice to the situation. It’s so unfamiliar that it stands out; it catches us off guard and turns our once iron-clad defiance into a stammering heap of garbled excuses.

To make matters worse, I once had one of these over-eager Englishmen swoop down on me, but was able to escape. Later that day I saw him again, his brash Birmingham accent replaced with the regular, mundane tones of your average Sydneysider. The idea of accents had, it appeared, become less of a natural trait and more a crafty tool.


3. Comparative Association

One of the most poorly-implemented techniques used to lull us into a false sense of security would have to be this – the endless barrage of compliments and comparisons. Like magpies to tinfoil their eyes dart and dance around you looking for any sign of band memorabilia, accessories or easily identifiable logos in order to burst out an unnecessary comment.

“Why yes, that is a camera strapped around my shoulder. Do I take photos? Well, I suppose I must. Oh, you took a photography class in high-school, did you? Who would have guessed?”

Any distinctive piece of clothing or accessory will be commented on, with the outward intention of flattery or to convey an association. In reality, I’ve never seen this technique used effectively – every time the words leave their mouths I can see the tiny neon sign shining behind their eyes reflecting the words “I DON’T CARE”.

charity collector techniques The Big Smoke

illustration: Mat Johnson


These methods and a handful of one hundred other tiny, deceptive stratagem, such as their penchant for aviators and expertise on carbo-loading, make up the exoskeleton of the sidewalk solicitor’s modus operandi; a catalogue of emotional subterfuge that would make a psychologist weep.

However, it’s hard to stay too mad at these folk who are trying to earn a crust while ostensibly doing something for a good cause – our guilt and shame is well deserved as, in reality, we are openly pushing the notion of charitable acts away due to our dislike of forced social situations.

So the next time you try to avoid these well-mannered, perfectly proportioned mannequins posing as charity collectors – doing your little dance to avoid their clawed grasps and shake out any excess guilt – remember that while their methods are maddening, their message is worth consideration.

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