Greenpeace Hippies In the Rain

Tonight as I departed work between spurts of rain and hail, I got to 17th and K just in time to be greeted by a “DO NOT WALK” hand. At some point, maybe it was the illiterate lobby who is responsible for this, street crossing signs were rid of English and became orange and white hands.

I still think a thumbs up would be cooler for “WALK” but that’s just me.

As I waited patiently, I noticed the scent of wet dog (x) patchouli oil (x) body odor wafting into my nose. It was disgusting. In front of me were three women of varied age with rain coats and/or umbrellas. Surely it wasn’t them. Was it me? I forgot my umbrella, but I was relatively dry since it was just drizzling. Oh, wait. I know who this is, the guy next to me in the bright yellow Greenpeace construction worker vest. That made total sense.

One thing I was not prepared for when I accepted my new job in the heart of downtown D.C. was that it, too, would be subject to the silly and petty political appeals of people who want your money in some way, shape or form. With about five years on Capitol Hill, I was used to the way interest groups heckle or petition you the second you exited the Metro station like a celebrity was accustomed to ignoring the paparazzi.

Don’t they know most of us just don’t care?

Just the other day on the way to get a burger for lunch, my path was blocked by Human Rights Campaign folks with the opening line of “Do you have a minute for gay rights?” Little did I know, I was in a real hurry to get that burger.

Based on some quick research, I learned Greenpeace calls these types of folks “frontliners.” Seriously, as if these people are winning the hearts and minds of voters on street corners. In actuality, they serve a completely different purpose: extorting the believers.

One former frontliner described his experience this way:

Canvassing for Greenpeace is one of the few experiences in my almost thirty years that I truly regret. If I could go back in time to my fresh-faced idealistic 22 year old self, I would tell her to RUN AWAY and never take that canvassing job. Deliver pizzas, bag groceries, deal heroin, but no matter what, DO NOT TAKE THIS JOB.

The atmosphere was unbearable. Cultlike, even. Not so much on the point of environmental issues (it was assumed that we were all equally committed to the cause), but in terms of GETTING TOTALLY REVVED UP to go beg people for money. It reminded me a lot of a high school pep rally, if the obnoxious popular kids and bullies were earnest liberals instead of cheerleaders.

On top of the creepy vibe, it was not really made clear at first that you only get paid if you make your quotas. They are required to pay you minimum wage if you don’t make your goal*, but you’ll be let go after a day or two of not hitting your targets. The commission is OK if you do really well at getting donations out of people, but if you aren’t great at it you make a pittance.

I’m a firm believer in calling people out on the Chesterton’s Gate fallacy, basically that people simplistically assume that things — like telemarketers, multi-level marketing schemes (read: pyramid schemes), canvassers and student workers calling alumni for Yankee dollars — shouldn’t exist because they perceive them to be ineffective.

The reasoning of the Chesterton’s Gate fallacy is basically this — before saying something is useless, find out why it exists and has continued to exist. While all of the aforementioned things don’t appeal or work on a person like me, doesn’t mean they don’t work on others. A guy who sat in the seat behind me on the metro tonight got a call from his college asking him for money. He replied “I can’t really do it this year” — implying, of course, that in years past he has fallen for the trap.

However, it really is ironic that Greenpeace appears to have ruthless hiring policies that would make even the evil Private Equity folks blush.

Recently on a Friday evening at the Huntington metro stop, people were soliciting my hard-earned Yankee dollars for what amounted to private foreign aid. I ignored them at first, but they were persistent. I was reminded of this scene from Boiler Room, and I was inspired: “If you want to close me, you should sell me.”

I concocted a scheme, hoping it would yield similar results to that scene from Boiler Room and inspire a young pity peddler. Here’s my advice on how you can get around the awkwardness of these situations by making them even more awkward.

A few days later, the kids were there again. I let one of them stop me. They started into their spiel: “What are the two things necessary for a child to survive?” I responded: “I will listen to your pitch if you can tell me within $4 billion the amount of State-Foreign Operations Appropriations in any of the past 3 years.”

Blank stare. I kept walking.

You can play this game at home if you’d like. Bottom line, to quote the West Wing, is “don’t accept the premise.” Just come up with a random question that should be apparent to true believers, like:

  • “Name a major provision of the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act,”
  • “True or false, the world’s biggest emitter of carbon dioxide has signed and ratified the Kyoto protocol?”

Or, you could go holier than thou and say: “I won’t donate through you because I think you guys are leeching off of the cause. Awareness? My ass!” I would not recommend the latter.

I wanted a good answer from the foreign aid kid, I really did. I also wanted a good pitch, but all I got was a blank stare.

Most frontliners and canvassers are not technocrats. You won’t get Ezra Klein, Paul Krugman, or David Walker on the street corner. If they’re asking for your money, though, they should have the decency to be open to debate, instead of just peddling prefab lines of pity.

Their incentives are structured around performance, thus, they don’t like when anybody jumps off of their script. So do just that.

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One Thought on “Greenpeace Hippies In the Rain

  1. In Edinburgh we called such folk “chongers,” a derivative of “charity mongers.”

    I feel bad for them. I don’t like rejection, and their job is rife with it. Plus, many people are less-than-brusque, often yelling at them.

    Most people are on their way to somewhere else, which means when such canvassers stop them on the street, they are causing inconvenience. This is generally true in my case; I don’t usually stroll around downtown with no intent. I believe in treating people politely and kindly, but expect others to return that sentiment. So when I’m asked, “Do you have a minute for [charity]?” I say, “Sure! But I’m on my way to a meeting, you’re going to have to walk with me.” Then I make a “follow me” motion. If they don’t want to walk with me, fine. If they do, I’ll listen to their pitch, then politely decline it, on the basis that I never make ongoing financial commitments during spur-of-the-moment street encounters.

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