Tuesday, December 06, 2005

21st Century Indulgences, Chugging and Corporate Ch Ch- ing.

The social welfare office is a bleak place to find yourself on a summer’s afternoon. It's decrepit decor of ruddy orange plastic chairs and ratty gray carpets, scarred with cigarette burns from anxious claimants testify to a lack of state investment and care . With every text and fag leaving another dent in a miserly bank balance, attempting to navigate signing on for the first time is more obstacle course than a walk in the park.

The anonymous voice at the other end of the line to the Citizen’s Information Centre was upfront and helpful, but nothing prepared me for the scowl awaiting as I finally came up to the spittle covered screen separating me from the vision that was the permed, middle aged, cardigan woman, and with the potential to emancipate me from my Koka noodle hell and put me back in the realm of fresh veg. Cardigan woman tells me her computer system operates two tax years in the past, so it’ll be my mid-twenties by the time I can use up the accumulated PRSI credits from my patch work quilt of jobs. Forms and forms later, and after jumping dolphin like deftly through reams of hoops - I'm left to await confirmation of my SWA. A letter arrives a few weeks later: my summer is to be lived out on 13.50EUR a week. With so much privatized knowledge of miraculous scamming of the welfare system collected among my social networks, how the hell did it come to pass that I let it slip I was co-habiting with another minimum wage slave?

Skipping every good gig of the summer and forward a few weeks I’m scrounging the job websites for the ideal posting - the sort of employment where I can persist with my disdain for work and internet addiction, greeting the world with lethargy and hangover’s rather than service and cheer. It’s at this point that chugging comes in. At once every urban area's new social pariah, the industry of charity mugging grows at a frantic rate as the most visible method of fund-raising. For most of us awareness around chugging extends little beyond the daily shared avoidance strategies used when passing the fuckers. They approach with grins like five year olds all giddied up to the eye-balls on skittles, meanwhile their eyes betray their smiles, its clear they really just want the ground to open up and swallow them, while you promptly lapse into the same hackneyed tricks; pretending to send a text message, using your IPod to short circuit your hearing or just storming past as if they don’t even exist.

I’d been through the interview process for chugging once or twice before, for groups like Concern and Amnesty International, both of whom have in house fund raising operations paying over the odds of €14 per hour. A double team presents itself, one young and in training to take over the interview process, the other older and in control. Given the predisposition for slightly hippy-ish clothing and woolly jumpers, the NGO sector should be thankful the League of Gentlemen never caught wind of the potential for Legs Akimbo style farce. Subject to a hardly probing set of questions on motivations for wanting the job, I found myself getting into a rhythm about wanting to save the world, knowing I am doing something useful with my life before hitting a brick wall when asked to talk at random about something I’m passionate about, a natural surliness ensured this was as far as I got.

It’s Friday, 11am and mid-August, when a rather excitable character rings me offering me an interview at 6pm for a chugging role to start the following Monday. I make my way out to a small office for an agency in lower Rathmines, I'm told I already have the job before being rushed through the interview routine for bureaucratic purposes, by a stressed indie-boy in his late twenties. Three days later I’m rushed into a one day training session with a slightly overweight, rugby player turned charity sweet talker. I was to be transformed over night into a salesman familiar with the routine of “Stop! Pitch! Ask!” This was the corporate newspeak covering up the old routine of sales targets, a PLC-ing of charities, disguised among a chummy, “we're a gang, and a what do a gang have? Balls” mentality, clearly designed to sap away any individual intuition that this charity talk was a load of tosh and you were standing on the precipice of the world of cold selling. After eight hours of repeating sales routines, the next day I was bibbed up and out on the street and hoping no one I know would pass by.

Amidst a drought of employment a flat-mate ended up pushing these notorious charity scratch cards on a commission only basis for 1 Euro out of every 2 Euro made. This was really stretching the definition of charity with the money going to a well known private alcoholic’s clinic. On sunny days, we sat perched in Temple Bar and watched with a clinical coldness as his levels of aggression increased over the months, before climaxing in brazenly following people from one end of Temple Bar to the other. Thankfully chuggers fuck off when politely asked to. After all, charities don't want to tarnish their brand with harassing figures desperate to pay rent.

Looking into it, chugging is a world with many nebulous traditions clashing. For the major charities it's simple. The donations they receive on an ongoing basis through direct debit allow for clean, efficient and long term budgeting as we had it drilled into our heads in training. Chugging is a method of direct sales and promotion rolled into one, lessons learnt from corporate promotion teams on visibility and engagement and on how to push a product in the face of a youth demographic. As one fund-raising company routinely points out: “while the average age of a donor on a charity database is 55, the average age of a person who decides to give regularly during a face to face communication is 29.” The model was developed in the early 1990's by the Austrian Andreas Leitner who had previously engaged in cold calling on telephones, before spreading the method to Germany, Switzerland and Italy, before hitting the UK with the company Dialogue Direct, last year it turned over €4 million.

On one hand you have charities seeking to raise money motivated by global or local concerns, and on the other you have private companies offering a service on a commission basis. Last year in the UK an estimated 690,000 people were persuaded by "chuggers" to give financial support to a charity, according to figures from the Public Fundraising Regulatory Association. At an average fee of £50 per sign-up, that suggests £34.5 million of donations going as income to the businesses. The big five are the Dialog Group Ltd, which runs the Face 2 Face Fundraising and Dialogue Direct agencies, Push Ltd, Gift Fundraising Ltd, Caring Together Ltd and Fruitful Fundraising UK Ltd. These are the commission sucking companies who's prominence has unleashed the current wave of anti-chuggger backlash prompting some of the more major charities to set up in house companies to do the work directly.

Feeding people my hook line of “excuse me, but do you know where the little people live?" Before rapidly proceeding into my spiel. The other option was pretending to be a tree, dancing or singing and fucked if I was doing that. There was a surprising lack of ignorance on the Dublin streets, there were in fact no blunt “fuck offs” and only a handful of goth kids muttering “get a real job” at a safe distance before tossing off to waste their mammies money on Marilon Manson shirts in Asha. Our location for the day was in and around the Central Bank, a turf much contested by the several homeless tappers who saw us preying on their market of soppy alternative types and American tourists hanging around Temple Bar, many of whom walked into my ploy forcing me to fob them off by immediately asking for money. This was selling a modern form of indulgences: this truly was a parallel world of “this week we have a special offer on children between the ages of five and ten suffering from polio, ten of whom you can cure for minimum of €19 a month. Take out a tax efficient subscription of €21 a month and that'll school eleven young girls left orphaned by parents with HIV, suit you sir? Well, step over here where you can purge your consciousness of guilt, and renounce your social responsibility all in one foul swipe of your signature and a series of numbers sent to your bank?”

The ad for the job sold it as “crazy or random” with the possibility of “work outdoors and do something different” and “make a real difference to your world” ensuring a constant flow inwards of young people seeking temporary work outside the humdrum of the McJob circus, while keeping some what in line with their own ill-defined sense of social justice. The others on team were indie types, or mushroom munching, psy-trance types clutching their Carlos Castaneda before heading off traveling again to some vaguely world music soundtrack. Judging from constant on-line advertising, there is a huge staff turnover in the “chugging” world. I did one day on the job, it was emotional prostitution, with a face physically aching from so much fake smiling. And then there was the weather, I’d been told in training that save for a hurricane Katrina style cataclysm we were never permitted to leave the out doors.

The buddy buddy-bullshit from the Carlos Castaneda reading team leader was nudging me to stay late, auto-reduce my hourly rate to somewhere dangerously below the minimum wage while keeping up the companies commission and I'm sure his own bonus. With such profits at stake and charity as the best motivational tool, its no surprise to hear that in New Zealand, there are claims that some chuggers are asked to pay a bond to cover an donors who pull out before a month before taking up employment. The next day when my alarm clock went off, I rolled over and went back to sleep - it was clear I needed to get off the streets and start pissing the general public off from a call centre instead.

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good article reddy. nice insight into the charity world.
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