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The charity-mugger phenomenon
Categories: Life

There is a rule of street fundraising that surely has parallels in the physical sciences. You find a charity mugger, pop them in an excessively luminous T-shirt to match their personality, and stand them in a sea of shoppers on a Saturday high-street. Powered by some alien intuition lurking in the moving throng, the “chugger” finds themselves projecting a mysterious and accidental loop of magnetic repulsion, which serves to keep their targets at bay. As the chugger’s efforts become more determined, it excites a collective nervousness in the surrounding group, perhaps via something like telepathy; this results in a collaborative broadening of the shopper gap, its fluctuating epicentre tracking the predator’s movements precisely.

The wiliest of muggers will often have arms outstretched, in crucifix form, perhaps to playfully suggest that there is no getting past them, but that really they will be fun to talk to anyway. Usually this bouncy posture is accompanied by a rapid series of enthusiastic side-gallops intended to separate an individual from the group; however, it is at this point they find how difficult it is to outfox the apparently sentient bubble of empty space, which shifts passers-by out of their permanently tantalised grasp.

In this situation, shoppers exhibit fascinating animal-like traits. As a group, they are a flock of birds moving with unexplained synchronicity, but on the rare occasions the side-galloper ensnares an individual successfully, the crowd become a herd of buffalo, grateful for the distraction, the personal sacrifice, and the better opportunity of escape. It is the few hapless victims who become the deer on the road: frozen in fear, and clinging to desperate hope that ought no longer be clung to.

It is with these mortal observations that I wish to report upon a most disturbing development. The British newspaper chain WH Smiths, previously of long-standing good repute, has started to permit chuggers onto their premises, and I feel the public must be told. This situation changes the mugger’s normal hunting dynamic out of all recognisable proportion, and creates a false sense of security of much greater deceptiveness than we are used to on the street.


I was already effectively cornered as I came down the newsagent’s stairs. A chugger in a newsagent is like finding a soldier in a demilitarised zone, or a police officer in civvies: logic insists they are off-duty and thus pose no danger. In retrospect, she was effectively in disguise too; there was a complete absence of both loony star-jumping and dazzling apparel, both of which caught me perilously off-guard. It is true that there is a critical juncture, when eye contact is accidentally made, and when the autonomous fight-or-flight mechanism kicks in, that escape is still a possibility; the tenacious prey can still forcibly break gaze, stammer a half-hearted apology, hurry headphones onto fumbling ears, and rush briskly away.

This is all well and good, but what are the English to do? Being morally obligated from birth not to cause even mild offence adds ominous delay to these split-second thought processes, and puts us at a grave disadvantage. And so it came to pass that I hand her half of a handshake thrust in my direction, just as I alighted the last step. It was too late.

The patter that persuades the deer to stay is clever, of course. Each leading question contains a statement, and each statement is intended to follow ineluctably from the last. So, once I admitted I had heard of Diabetes UK, I was asked whether I knew people who suffered from the disease. I think she was rather pleased that I did, since it made it a great deal easier to ask whether I agreed that the charity’s work was invaluable. My mind spotted the logical fallacy immediately, but how does one explore the possibility that this organisation might be dreadful, or my persuasive chugger might be a fraudster? Equally, perhaps I might have suggested that health support ought to be exclusively provided by the state, and that it should not have to rely on unpredictable giving. In the end, I said that supporting diabetes sufferers sounded like a fine thing to do, but that I did not know the charity’s record — a reasonable compromise.

Ever the sales-person, she was not in the slightest deterred by my non-committal answer. It was thoroughly established that the charity does wonderful work, and I was left in no doubt that “many members of the public” — that very day! — were signing up to donate twenty pence a day. Perhaps I should have been surprised there was not a queue going out the door. And so it continued: what can you buy with twenty pence, these days? I saw the trap, but there’s not much one can do about it, other than perhaps scrabble mentally around for the few measly things that can be bought for twenty pence. But no, I agreed that twenty pence is a small sum, which leads to the loaded denouement:

So, can I take it that we can count on your generous support today?

Ah, I see. If I say “no”, then I am admitting to a paucity of generosity. In fact, I’d be cheerily conceding to selfishness; after all, it is only twenty pence. I’d said essentially the same myself. I pause to consider the combined weight of concocted peer pressure and unsubtle emotional blackmail. My back-out strategy, now that the speech is delivered, is to say that I support a number of charities already, and that I don’t have room for more. Her eyes narrow. Strangely, I still feel guilty even though it is clear she believes I am lying:

Oh, really? Which charities do you support?

Quite a few, I said, though I struggled to bring names to mind. Was my memory failing me, or was this a subconscious hesitance to go into invasive detail? About ten, I said. That number wasn’t true at all, but I suspect it helped to render them too numerous to mention. I think this is where I saw a chance to hop in the getaway car: as the emotional power of her pitch faded, and with her struggling to counter my feeble justifications for not signing up, I made my apologies before she could manipulate me further.


The odd thing about this exchange was that, although I didn’t give in to blackmail for a charity I feel no personal connection to, I felt quite bereft for several hours afterward. I brooded, and harboured resentment against the person who appeared to have deliberately stirred up such negativity. And the more I replayed the conversation in my head, the more I contrasted my embarrassment and uncertainty against her stealthy and practised pitch.

I’d been inadvertently rude to her several times, having not shook her hand when it was offered, and I’d lied to her too. But herein lies the power of chugging: it works because the tiny imperatives that make people generally civil and honest can be, and will often be, exploited. So, if there is a moral to this story, it is that a firm rejection at the start is likely to be the greater politeness, even if we are inclined towards hearing someone out when they beg for us to do so.

Sadly, the reality is that street fundraising works because charities generally find it improves their bottom line. This is still the case even taking its huge inefficiencies into account: if you give a fiver a month, you might have to do so for over a year before the charity breaks even (source). The solution: find charities that work for you, and give directly. And when you see a chugger, don’t, whatever you do, look into their eyes.

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