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Save the Children wants you

Mar 16, 2005 at 4:00 am
The clipboard-toting canvasser has positioned herself directly in your path. She's young and chipper, and you know she's looking for some green, which you have no intention of parting with. Even as you're set to deliver your old reliable "Sorry, not today" (accompanied by your well-honed rendition of the universal empty-pockets gesture), the clipboard wielder throws you for a loop.

"Do you have a moment to help save the children?"

"Sorry, not today." Ouch.

The scenario has been a common one around St. Louis since the fall of 2003, when Save the Children, a 73-year-old, Connecticut-based charity that raises a quarter of a billion dollars annually, shifted its fundraising focus from Africa to Appalachia and from actress-pitchwoman Sally "All in the Family" Struthers' televised pleas to an army of fresh-faced, left-leaning sidewalk solicitors. Answer the ingeniously off-putting come-on in the affirmative and you'll be subjected to a "rap" about why you must help save poor, hungry Appalachian children right now, without giving it another moment's thought. Respond with a "no" and you are, ipso facto, a heartless bastard.

Susan Wyman wasn't looking to save the children when she showed up at the Fund for Public Interest Research's Euclid Avenue offices early last month. A recent Webster University grad and seasoned activist who doorbelled for the liberal voter-registration outfit America Coming Together during the 2004 presidential campaign, the 53-year-old Wyman thought she'd be hitting the streets on behalf of the Campaign to Save the Environment. That was the organization mentioned in the ad she answered on Webster's employment Web site, which made no mention of Save the Children (though it did tout the Sierra Club and MoPIRG, a sister organization of FFPIR that serves as its public-advocacy and research arm).

Wyman and her half-dozen counterparts were told that they were being considered for positions as fundraising canvassers for Save the Children, commission-based jobs with the potential to pay from $350 to $500 per week. Though she was surprised by the nature of the work, Wyman was encouraged by an internal document that equated the fund's work with women's suffrage, civil rights and "No Nukes!" activism, and she agreed to come back two days later and hit the streets.

When the appointed day arrived, Wyman didn't get off on the right foot with her on-the-job trainer, Mark Kustelski, outside the downtown Famous-Barr. For starters, she says, Kustelski had her observe him as he engaged a passer-by.

The pedestrian said he was already a Save the Children sponsor and had been for years, whereupon, Wyman says, she uttered a spontaneous "Wow!"

Judging from Kustelski's reaction, she might as well have accused the donor of fornicating with defenseless farm animals. "Mark said, 'I told you not to say anything; I don't want to have to be competing for people's attention,'" Wyman recalls.

He later reprimanded her for displaying her Save the Children binder improperly and for facing north instead of west, as he'd instructed. And then there was the way Wyman flagged down pedestrians. "At some point he came over to me and said, 'The next time you wave like that, I'm going to fire you on the spot,'" she recounts.

After about five hours of pitching, the pair had recruited precisely zero new sponsors for Save the Children, an outcome Wyman chalks up to weather and location as much as bum luck and ineptitude.

"It was an idiotic plan, because people don't want to stop on their lunch hour, and it was excruciatingly cold," she says. "There are much better places to canvass."

Wyman quit at shift's end. She says she has yet to receive her check for $35 (the minimum daily wage for canvassers who fail to sign up any sponsors).

Kustelski was on an out-of-town recruiting trip and wasn't available to comment for this story. His supervisor, James Manuel, pins the blame squarely on Wyman.

"She didn't come in with the right attitude and left with an even worse attitude," says Manuel, who runs FFPIR's St. Louis office. "Folks who are just looking for a paycheck aren't going to succeed."

Founded in 1982 in Boston, the Fund for Public Interest Research and its field offices can best be described as grassroots operations-for-hire that farm themselves out to like-minded charitable behemoths with the means to outsource street-level duties. The fund's clients include the Sierra Club, Greenpeace and the Human Rights Campaign. Most canvassers are either in college or have recently graduated.

"The heart of my job is to raise money from citizen outreach," says James Manuel. "But an even greater part of it is developing activists."

George Washington University law student John Castiglione doesn't buy that rap. A former canvassing director, Castiglione left the organization's D.C. office after six months with such a bitter taste in his mouth that he has devoted a Web site to what he perceives are the fund's deficiencies (

"You could be canvassing for two or three different organizations in the space of a week," Castiglione complains. "The canvassers are never trained as to what the organizations are about. It's not unusual for a canvasser to memorize the rap and then have no idea what these organizations do, which is not fair to the organizations."

What's more, because Save the Children canvassers receive a cut of the donations they're able to solicit -- 15 percent for one-off donors and 20 percent for "Lifeline Sponsors" -- they're compelled to hotbox donors into forking over cash on the spot rather than mull it over. (Foot soldiers tell prospective donors that 90 percent of any contribution goes to "program services," backing up the assertion with a pie chart from the colorful binder they carry with them. Manuel says the seeming discrepancy is a red herring: A canvasser's cut of a "Lifeline" sponsorship expires after ten months, he explains, and most donors continue to contribute well beyond that period.)

Save the Children is well-regarded among charity watchdog groups. Charity Navigator gives the group its best rating (four stars) and ranks Save the Children 34th out of the 130 international-development charities it surveys. The American Institute of Philanthropy gives Save the Children an "A" rating. (It wasn't always that way: In the late 1990s Save the Children was assailed by NBC News and the Chicago Tribune for, among other indiscretions, grossly inflating its 90 percent figure by counting staff salaries and travel expenses as program services. The Tribune also revealed that Save the Children kept dead African children on its sponsorship rolls.)

Save the Children reports that its street-level-fundraising concept has yielded more than 70 percent of the charity's new donor base.

But the watchdogs aren't convinced, warning that these new donors might not prove loyal over the long haul.

"It's usually frowned upon to pay people a percentage or commission," says Daniel Borochoff, president of the American Institute of Philanthropy. "What this all leads to is that the canvasser may harass the individual to the point where they'll say, 'Okay, I'll give you a contribution this time, as long as I never have to deal with you again.' That can backfire, because the only way a nonprofit can be successful is to build a cadre of long-term, loyal supporters.

"The way I wish they'd do it is to give you the solicitor's identification number, and then when you send your contribution in, the solicitor would receive some credit," Borochoff says. "The way it is, he doesn't want you to think about it, because he doesn't get his commission. If you know what's going on, you're not even going to participate with a street solicitor."