Do You Have a Minute for the Children?

by Becky Allen

“Hey, do you have a minute for the children?”

Wince. Apologetic smile and shrug. Slink away. That’s pretty standard. Canvassers are really common in New York, so I’ve been asked endlessly if I have a moment for the children, or gay marriage, or the environment. (Or where I get my hair cut, and if I’m interested in a spa treatment at a fancy salon. Yes, I am, but I’m not giving you $200 in cash.) So the answer is usually that awkward shrug and me moving on without taking off my headphones, but two weeks ago I was in a weird mood.

It was a Monday, exactly a week after my 30th birthday. I’d taken the previous Thursday and Friday off work to spend a long weekend with friends, drinking, road-tripping, and going to concerts. It was awesome. Expensive, but awesome. I was having some issues refocusing on work, and decided to wander a bit as I looked for somewhere to get a quick lunch. I wasn’t in a rush to get back to my desk, so I figured, what the heck? I took out my earbuds and said, “Yeah, but you should know, I’m not going to give my debit card information to a guy on the street, even if it is for the children. I’d be happy to take a pamphlet, though.”

“We don’t have pamphlets,” he said.

Because you know most people would just throw them out, I thought smugly, so you’d rather just get the debit card info.

“Because we don’t want to spend the money printing those out when the money could go right to what we support. But I get it. If you want, I can tell you about all of the ways we make sure your debit info would be secure. See, here’s my license to even ask you about this, and if anyone ever tries to get your info but can’t produce a license, you should know they’re scammers…”

It all sounded pretty legit. He had a few different papers, and explained what they were in a lot of specific terms. He talked about the time someone had given him card info, but had signed in too much of a hurry, so the bank assumed his messy signature was fake and rejected it. My data would be safe. Cool, except seriously, all I knew was that he had an organization’s shirt on and some official looking papers on a clipboard. Were those real? Does the city actually license canvassers? How would I know the difference between a real license and a scam that looked pretty official?

I didn’t. So I shook my head and said sorry. He was a funny, interesting speaker, obviously a great salesman, but he’d been talking to me for eight or ten minutes and I didn’t want him to waste any more time.

“Hey, it’s cool. But I haven’t even told you about the program yet. Come on, don’t you want to hear a little about it?”

I’m sparing you all the details of the charity — I’m not trying to evangelize it. But I still didn’t want to go back to my desk, so I figured, why not? I’d told him I wasn’t going to sign up, but somehow his explanation of how the charity worked had turned into a discussion between us about charitable giving philosophies and the social safety net and ways it could be improved. He knew his stuff. It was actually just a really good conversation, and yes, it kept coming around to the group he supported, but I was having a good time debating with this total stranger.

The thing was, I knew the conversation was a sales tactic. He was funny and informed and trying to keep me engaged, and it was working. And all those papers he’d had looked really official. And he had ready answers for all the questions I asked about his charity and how it functioned. It felt legit, but I just couldn’t. It wasn’t even about the debit card thing anymore, it was about this sense of: If you give into this and sign up for charity on the street, you’re a sucker. The salesman won you over. The salesman won, therefore you lost.

So because of my ego, a sense of pride, I wasn’t going to give money to this guy or his good cause. Except that is such a weird, weird way of looking at it. Because someone happened to be shilling for this good cause, I was going to prove my worth by… not giving to a good cause? He wasn’t trying to sell me on that salon/spa treatment. I agreed with the charity’s philosophy and methods, from everything he’d described. It was the sort of thing that, in fact, I would always want to support. I definitely wished I had the chance to really research it, but my gut said it was something I’d want to give money to. But because I was being asked to support it by a guy on the street who was a really good salesman — a guy who’d kept me in this conversation for almost half an hour, by that point — I was going to not give?

The kicker was this, though: the payment plan is monthly, and all told, it adds up to less than $350/year. $350? That was almost exactly what I’d spent, the previous weekend, on concert tickets. I’m 30 years old. I have a salaried job that not only do I enjoy, but it pays me fairly well. Admittedly, it’s rare that I do anything as extravagant as that birthday weekend, but, well, if I could spend that much money on myself, for fun, without worrying about my bank account, then surely I could spare it over the course of a year, for The Children.

So I took a leap of faith, and handed my debit card to a stranger on the street.

I am pleased to report that the charity was not a scam and this did not lead to the stealing of my identity.

Becky Allen lives in New York, has a blog.

Support The Billfold

The Billfold continues to exist thanks to support from our readers. Help us continue to do our work by making a monthly pledge on Patreon or a one-time-only contribution through PayPal.