The Reality of Fundraising

I started a fundraising job on a Monday, and handed in my uniform on the Thursday. The reason isn’t particularly a fault on my part, nor any fault on my team or supervisor, but a fundamental issue with the role; people are really horrible. I applied for the job because I wanted to do something that made me feel happy and like I’d made a positive difference. Instead, only four days in, I felt awful in myself and disgusted at humanity.

To be clear, the job was as far from ‘chugging’ as charity fundraising can be. I was paid an hourly wage, rather than on commission. We were indoors, at a train station, with a clear area in front of a large sign and two tables. We followed the PFRA code of conduct; not stepping in front of or obstructing people, not taking advantage of vulnerable people and never trying to guilt people into signing up. The company’s own code of conduct and system for rating fundraisers focuses on long term donors, so it was in our own interest to ensure people were genuinely happy to sign up and so wouldn’t cancel it as soon as they got away.

I started with enthusiasm and a good outlook. It was more hours and better hourly rate than my last job, my team was friendly and had a positive attitude and my boss seemed absolutely lovely. It was for a well-known charity that works in a field no one can not care about and is making a real difference. I know I have a genuine smile and friendly demeanour, and I know I don’t care about looking like a fool or talking to strangers.

I was prepared for rejection. It can take a hundred “hi, how are you?”s to get someone to stop, and it can take ten conversations with someone who stops to get a sign up. The more people you try and talk to, the higher your chances of getting sign ups. I had no problem with people ignoring me or replying with “no” or “I’m busy”. In fact, people who had clearly seen me suddenly pretending they hadn’t was pretty funny.

It was the sheer amount of people looking at me like I was something they stepped in, or like I was personally insulting them. As factually as you can understand that it’s not personal, that it’s not about the charity let alone you, that it’s probably about the state of their day so far, it wears you down. I had a woman happily talk to me for ages, then look horrified and angered when I mentioned that we were looking for donations; the sheer audacity Cancer Research must have, in her opinion, to not simply pay people to stand in the train station and tell her personally about cancer and how we’re improving the treatment, but to ask her to help!?

There were a few people who reacted in anger, not just to me mentioning money, but from my apparent rudeness in daring to say “good morning” or even be standing still and not talking to them. One person told me to “fuck off” and one person nearly walked into me then looked at me in disgust. It really is surprising how close people will walk to what is obviously a charity stand when they can’t stand being greeted by charity fundraisers. Walking between us and the tables, walking through the one-person-wide gap between the tables and the banner, even resting their stuff on the table and looking at our leaflets. All just to glare and stomp away when talked to.

So it wasn’t the job I thought it would be, and it was harder from a keeping happy and positive side than leafleting on the street was. People are happier for some kid in scruffy clothes to push leaflets trying to sell them things into their hands right outside the small entrance to the train station that they are for a smartly dressed person working for a good cause to greet them when they walk past the easily avoidable stand. So much, so tiring.

At least I could go home knowing that by doing a good job I was saving lives, right? Well, I could have, had I been doing a good job. I got one sign up on my first day, a great start, and another on my second. Two thirds of the way into my three in three days starter target. Okay, so they were both people that clearly walked by us wanting to donate; it took barely any explanation and just the mention of the sign up form. And then, nothing. I came in on my third day ready to get my third sign up in the first hour. I was following all my coworkers advice and greeting every person I could. Nope. I wasn’t making the difference that I was hoping. It was definitely a downer, due to my high hopes and the expectations day one gave me.

I was still determined, then one person just… broke me.

He stopped to tell me why he refuses to donate to or support Cancer Research. He lectured me about the animal testing he says they do. I haven’t looked it up yet; it’s not important. I would agree that unnecessary animal testing, that is, testing on animals for non-life-saving reasons such as cosmetics or for testing things that are already proven, is unnecessary and I would not support it as I would prefer it did not happen. I feel the creation of life saving cancer treatments is at the very least in a grey area, as we can hardly go from theoretical to human testing.

He told me that animal testing is ‘bad science’ because animals and people are not the same. Ignore the fact that humans have had pigs’ hearts as transplants, and the success of medicine tested on animals, apparently. He skipped over my attempt to change the subject. No, all animal testing is useless and by definition animal abuse; it’s not just the medicine testing, he insisted that all animal testing is in battery-style cages and they use beagles and cut their vocal cords so they can’t cry. He painted a Nazi-esque sociopathic doctor doing it for the hell of it, and told me repeatedly that I am promoting animal abuse for fundraising for Cancer Research.

Bear in mind, of course, he is just some man with nothing to back up his statements, who has gone to the shorter, white and apparently female fundraiser, not the black man around his height. It’s me he wants to lecture and harass and tell to quit. Shaken, but not quite beaten yet, I asked him what the alternative is, hoping for him to stumble over the idea of testing on humans.

No. He instead tells me cancer is hereditary and that by “allowing people to carry on living” after being diagnosed with cancer we are just causing it to stay in the gene pool. Lifestyle factors aside, I was suddenly aware I had been confronted by a man who was genuinely arguing in favour of eugenics. You expect to meet the worst people that exist if you work in a prison or with dangerous people; a social worker, a police officer, an addiction counsellor. This man was just some man in a suit, going to work through Victoria station.

My team leader told me you get people like that sometimes. I’m not going to lie, I cried. I handed in my uniform that same day, and hope to never meet anyone that horrifying again.

Seven Surprising Things You Learn Working In a Charity Shop

People Shoplift from Charity Shops

This surprised me the most. The heartlessness of coming into a shop staffed by volunteers, raising money for a charitable cause… and nicking stuff. The pettiness of stealing things that are being sold for a pound. It’s not even like it’s poorer people stealing, either; it seems to be people who could easily afford the items at full retail price.

I walked in for an afternoon shift just as a full rack of jeans was discovered missing. There was just an empty rack, so whoever it was had just picked them all up with no regard for size or style and left with maybe ten pairs of jeans. More experienced staff said those jeans will likely end up on a market stall or on e-bay.

You Find Out All Kinds of Personal Things

Most people are aware that old ladies will happily tell everyone all about their latest surgery, but it turns out that all kinds of people will also happily tell charity shop staff the gory details of their personal lives. Women tell me at the till about their changes in breast size and point out the size of the bras they’re buying. People tell me exactly what reason they’re buying clothes for and exactly what they think of a relative who’s wedding it is.

The most interesting anecdote of all isn’t mine, but a coworker’s as they told me how weird it gets sometimes. An attractively dressed woman with a lot of make up on came in, and looked at revealing clothes and high heels, as she has done since when I’ve been in. This time, apparently, a man came up to her and asked her if she was working. After a moment of her panicked face, she told him to wait outside. Turns out she’s a sex worker. The funny part of the story is that my coworker says she carried on shopping for nearly an hour while the man stood around outside waiting!

People Act As If the Prices are Extortionate

It’s a charity shop. The things are mostly second hand and none of the clothes cost more than a fiver. There are some truly lovely, good quality items that seem to be brand new, and they’re priced higher than used and basic items while still being charity-shop cheap. Someone, people still try to sweet talk themselves discounts or complain about the price.

I helped a woman shorter than me, getting a handbag down off of the wall for her. We chatted about the designer label, the likelihood that it was real leather, and the as-new quality it was in. She took it to the till, but then asked in surprise if the price on the label was right; apparently £14.99 is a shocking price to ask for an as-new bag that is nearly £900 new, and she left without buying anything.

People Donate Brand New, Quality Items…

Having never really had a lot of money in my teens or adult life, I’ve only really given old clothes to younger relatives and more recently sold them on eBay, or binned them if they were too damaged. The things that go to the charity shop are things you don’t need to replace (and thus sell for money towards the replacement) and things that wouldn’t fit a relative. Seeing some of the great clothes and other things we get in the charity shop is a heart-warming reminder that people who are better off do actually donate their possessions rather than share and sell for extra money.

Just as the nearly £900, barely-used designer handbag, I’ve put out, neatened up or sold some items that it really reassures my faith in humanity to find donated. We’ve had brand new items, still in their packets, including mid-range shirts. I can tell many of the books donated to us have never been read, their spines stiff and pages pristine, and one or two even with the unfaded receipt still tucked into the back cover. Much of our nicest non-clothes items are PDSA items such as pet-themed décor, but even that gets donated; I’ve sold a painting and wondered who painted it, who donated such a lovely item.

…and Old, Broken Rubbish

Unfortunately, people also seem to see charity shops as a dump where you get to feel good about yourself, and we get people attempting to ‘donate’ all kinds of rubbish. We don’t take electrical items and things like bike helmets, as it’s near impossible for us to know if they’re in usable condition. We find that clothes are too ripped or that battery items have old, mouldy batteries in them, but that’s a judgement call.

It’s when people try to give us obviously cracked bike helmets that would be dangerous to use, puzzles and multi-piece toys with many pieces missing, or things that are blatantly of no use to anyone that’s most frustrating. I’ve even had to explain that no, we don’t take kitchen cupboard doors with no hinges or handles!

People Have Zero Common Sense

While it is a volunteering role for a charity, it’s also retail work in a high street shop. As such, you get all the same realisations of customer ignorance. There’s something about walking into a shop that makes people forget how to read, use logic and count, and it seems that charity shops are one of the worst for this.

The typical occurrence of people handing you clothes with labels on the top with huge £1 stickers and asking you how much they cost happens, as does people looking at a sign that says “3 items only in the changing room” then asking if the curtained area is a changing room or how many items they can take in. I had to repeatedly explain to a customer that while I personally did not know if the watch she was buying had a battery in it, it had been tested and did work. She walked over to a display while I rung her purchase up on the till, then asked if I had, in that time, tested the watch.

Charity Shops Are a Local Charity, Too

While the point of charity shops are already charities, raising money for animal, medical and international charities, the shops themselves provide a charitable service to the local community. In selling the things people have donated, charity shops are shops selling cheap second hand things that people can afford easier.

A woman came in to buy her kids some holiday clothes, as new clothes for 4 children can get very expensive very quickly. A couple of people come in regular, donating the puzzles they’ve completed and buying up new puzzles to do. In a conversation I had with a customer, I realised he was a homeless man buying an interview suit for less than £10. Working in a charity shop gives you a real insight into their role in the community.