Is That Charity Street Canvasser Legit?

Dialogue Direct Children International
Dialogue Direct Children International

They're a ubiquitous sight in major cities around the world: youths in brightly colored T-shirts stopping passersby on sidewalks, asking questions like, "Do you care about the planet?" "Do you want to help save children?" "Do you have a few minutes to talk about how to make the world a better place?"

Armed with a clipboard and a mission, these fundraisers are after donors, and their dollars, working for a variety of charities with missions ranging from environmental sustainability to equality to eliminating hunger.

And while most people wouldn't give their wallet to a stranger on the street, many people give these strangers their personal and financial information. But it's not always wise -- or for the benefit of humankind.

Not What They Appear

One of the most visible of these charities is Children International, with a mission to help children in poverty. But the people blocking sidewalks in CI shirts aren't volunteers or even Children International staff members -- they're employees of DialogueDirect, a corporate fundraiser whose only client is Children International.

When asked how donors could know their information was safe when giving to a street team member, Felicity von Suck, a client services manager, replied, "All of the information comes into our office and is locked up overnight. We then scan it over an encrypted line and Children's International is the only one who can decrypt it."

Asked about the safety of the information before it reaches the DialogueDirect office, von Suck replied, "We conduct background checks on everyone we hire. If we've hired someone, and their background check comes back with a felony or misdemeanor or something that appears like that person is prone to fraudulent behavior, we don't send them out."

But there have been cases, such as the one in San Jose in February, where individuals collecting for a charity have no affiliation with them.

Sakshi Jain, an IT communications professional in Washington, D.C., says the potential for scams doesn't stop her from giving, but it does make her careful. "I ask a lot of questions if I am not familiar with the charity or stick to organizations I know; there are too many false charities nowadays that prey on the generosity of others."

A New Model of Fundraising

Matt Wolcott of the Student Conservation Association, or SCA, which places people of all ages in service on public lands, says that face-to-face fundraising can be effective when done properly.

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Although the SCA doesn't currently do street canvassing, Wolcott says the organization isn't against it. "As the traditional tactics for donor acquisition become more and more cost-prohibitive," he says, "organizations medium and large are scrambling to figure out how to find alternate ways to supplant more traditional donor acquisition strategies, like direct mail."

Wolcott says street teams can serve another purpose. Street canvassers are usually young, well-spoken, and dynamic, and most important, passionate about their causes. "Street canvassers can work as great ambassadors of the mission and the organization," he says. "Professional fundraising is really struggling to attract young, professional talent. A good face-to-face fundraiser would make a fantastic development officer with a little more training and skill."

Cut Out the Middleman

Still want to give to a street canvasser? Know the charity, and whether the person collecting is a staff member or works for a third party. The heart of these campaigns is soliciting recurring donations, so make sure that what's on the receipt has been mutually agreed upon. Also, check the donor number on the receipt against the charity's website to confirm that your money has been received.

To ensure the bulk of charitable dollars go directly to the cause, donate via the organization's website or through its direct-mail campaign. This will minimize risk of fraud, and truly will help save the children -- and keep a few other kids off the streets.

Motley Fool contributor Molly McCluskey spent eight years managing communications for nonprofit organizations. None of her former employers, including the Student Conservation Association, used corporate fundraisers during her tenure.