Thursday 21 November 2019

Facing a street full of indifference with a smile on your face

Collecting is tough - just don't call them chuggers, writes Nicola Anderson

A Concern Charity worker attempts to get a person to support the charity
A Concern Charity worker attempts to get a person to support the charity
Nicola Anderson

Nicola Anderson

'You wouldn't mind zipping me up at the back, love, would you?" asks a girl in her mid 20s in a green lace dress, telling me she was 'after getting saturated' in the recent downpour.

Startled, I comply and find myself fumbling nervously as I button up the dress of a complete stranger.

Stand around on Parnell Street in Dublin's inner city for long enough and anything is liable to happen.

Just a short time before that, a teenage girl, no more than 14, was physically chucked out of a corner shop for suspected shoplifting. She consoled herself by hurling abuse at the store manager.

Managing to maintain calmness and serenity amid this maelstrom of street life is a small group of street collectors from Concern.

Even when a man appears to sniff glue literally seconds before approaching John, the Concern team leader, asking for "a chat" - and quickly developing an attitude problem.

John smooths his ruffled feathers with a well-judged: "It's okay, buddy." From anybody else it might sound passive-aggressive, but from John it is as soothing as the voice of the man's own mother.

These people skills come in useful when you are attempting to prise future earnings from a passer-by in the form of an ongoing direct debit mandate. A team of three fundraisers is operating this day on Parnell Street.

Two are young women in their early twenties - one is full-time with Concern and has a long-distance wave that she uses to 'isolate' possible targets.

There is also a bright student who will be heading back to college shortly and a young man, also in his 20s and who is full-time. All three are attractive and have the hearty cheerfulness and enthusiasm for the cause that is the crucial kit for this occupation.

And one of the first things I learn is that they are definitely not 'chuggers'.

"It's a derogatory term - we hate it," shrugs John, who says that nobody ever throws this term at them on the street.

"It's not even a term in my head."

He says that if people saw the real difference their donation makes to the lives of the disadvantaged and the suffering, they would not have to be out there fundraising - people would be coming to them instead.

"They'd have a different attitude," he says.

For the crucial details of name, signature, bank account number and sort code, each street collector has a target of two per day.

It doesn't sound too strenuous for €11 an hour - but when you're standing out and about from 10am until 6pm, and facing a constantly surging wave of indifference, it is actually quite a lot.

Most people pass by, head down, or with a brief shake of the head and a smile of regret.

A small minority might give them hassle, admits John but he is overwhelmingly positive about the reaction they get, saying: "Generally we get a very nice response from the public."

What the collectors are looking for is long-term commitment. "We'd rather sign people up on the basis of how long they're going to stay," explains John.

"€5 a month for the rest of their lives is better than €100 over the space of two months."

He explains that the real benefit of this for the charity is that it is able to plan budgets in advance.

"When the Nepal earthquake happened, we were there straight away - because we knew we could do it," he said.

How the collectors reel people in, is the question. John explains that there are no special tricks. It is all down to passion.

"Every collector has a project they're really passionate about," he says.

Personally speaking, he says that when he started out as a collector last September, it was the Ebola virus that was his own pet project because it was topical at the time.

"Now those three countries are Ebola free and that's in no small part because of the work done by Concern out there," he says.

Now, John is particularly keen on the community health worker idea - which gives medical training to locals in villages so that families don't have to make a trek across vast terrain to fetch medical health for the ill and infirm.

The red-headed student is currently talking animatedly to a young Asian man with glasses who has stopped to hear what she has to say.

John explains that her passion is the 1,000 days programme - which promotes action and investment to improve nutrition for mothers and children from conception right through to a child's second birthday, which makes a life-changing impact on a child's future health.

Sure enough, the student has brought out a sample of 'plumpy nut' - the peanut-based snack used in the treatment of acutely malnourished children - and is using it as a prop to make her point.

Her enthusiasm pays off and the man gives up his details, smilingly, on the spot.

John is full of admiration - it is the student's second 'sale' of the day and it's only 4pm.

Across the road, the male collector has had a similar success with a young African national, who also signs up.

And then, suddenly, the full-time female worker is waving her arms frantically at John for assistance. A woman holding a bottle of wine in her hand has broken away from a nearby group of down-and-outs and has stopped to devote her attention to the girl.

A brief intervention does the trick and the woman is on her way. In this game, as ever, diplomacy is key. And the collectors' upbeat demeanour never falters.

"It is quite tiring, on your feet all day but you get stronger all the time," says John.

Irish Independent

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