In-your-face solicitations on downtown streets

Dialogue Direct, a for-profit company that solicits on public streets for charities, aggressively engages pedestrians in downtown Seattle. City Councilmember Tom Rasmussen has just about had it with a "face-to-face" approach that is generating complaints.

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Dialogue Direct canvasser at First and Pine

Dialogue Direct, a for-profit company that solicits on public streets for charities, aggressively engages pedestrians in downtown Seattle. City Councilmember Tom Rasmussen has just about had it with a "face-to-face" approach that is generating complaints.

Last week I was walking in a crowd toward Pike Place Market when a pretty young woman, badge on lanyard and clipboard in fist, swooped into my path. “Hi!” she chortled, grinning like a long-lost friend and reaching for my hand. “Want to save a child today?”

A canvasser for Children International, she is trained and paid by Dialogue Direct, a global company that, according to its web site, improves fundraising for "renowned charities worldwide" through "face-to-face communication on public streets."

In the view of Seattle City Councilmember Tom Rasmussen, what Dialogue Direct calls its "cost-effective and highly successful technique" startles people and catches them off balance. And when canvassers turn and follow potential donors who try to move away from them, as has happened to him more than once, it arouses "the feeling of being trapped in a crowd,” he said.

Pedestrians have complained to business and hotel owners and to Seattle's Convention and Visitors Bureau about aggressive canvassing, according to Rasmussen. He'd like canvassers for nonprofits to mend their offensive ways on Seattle streets.

Three companies besides Dialogue Direct currently deploy paid canvassers to solicit donations for charitable causes in Seattle's downtown core: Grassroots Campaigns, The Fund for the Public Interest, and Public Outreach Group. These three, said Rasmussen's legislative aide Brian Hawksford, believe that the aggressive style of Dialogue Direct canvassers is the cause of all the complaints.

Managers at the three companies have been responsive, said Rasmussen, with assurances that their canvassers abide by their training: stationing themselves at the curb or beside a building (not patrolling the middle of the sidewalk) and instead of accosting passersby inviting them to approach their stations.

However, Dialogue Direct has “made excuses not to meet,” said Rasmussen. He reported that Chris Gunn, the manager of the company’s Seattle campaign, told him he couldn’t agree to a meeting unless he had permission from the company's New York City office, but calls to New York from Rasmussen’s desk were not returned.

Another concern of Rasmussen’s is a lack of awareness on the part of Seattle donors that all gifts made to the Red Cross via downtown canvassers (their company is Public Outreach Fundraising) will end up in the national, not the Seattle, Red Cross coffers. Rasmussen said there can be confusion if people “think you’re giving to the local organization.” Money collected for the American Civil Liberties Union (by Grassroots Campaigns canvassers) goes to the state affiliate as well as to the national ACLU, according to ACLU of Washington communications director Doug Honig. And Dialogue Direct solicits for a non-local charity. 

When I was more or less waylaid by three different Dialogue Direct canvassers on two afternoons downtown this month, and when all three told me they'd been trained in this strategy by their manager, I decided to visit Gunn at his office in Pioneer Square. Standing outside his building I dialed his number and was surprised when (after trying to put me off with promises to have his HR people call me) he agreed to bring me up to his office. There he showed me a poster on which were printed the techniques he teaches to canvassers.

Sure enough, one of the items on the poster instructs trainees to approach people head-on and shake their hands. “We’re polite, but we’re energetic,” Gunn said. “We want people to stop. Everyone dislikes being stopped, but you’re less effective if you’re by the curb. We work differently from the other companies. And we raise more money.”   

Dialogue Direct’s client services manager in New York, Felicity von Sück, echoed Gunn in a brief phone conversation: “If there is a 6- to 8-foot distance between you and people, they can easily walk by. But honestly, I feel that [our canvassers] are not trained to be that imposing. We do not want to be a hindrance to anyone in the communities in which we work.”

Yet a hindrance — a smiling, playful hindrance, to be sure, and for an apparently worthy cause — is precisely what each of three different Dialogue Direct canvassers seemed to be to people walking on Pine and Pike between Fourth and First as I observed them after my visit with Gunn. The truth of what he had told me was evident in these encounters: "Everyone dislikes being stopped."

Said Rasmussen, “This is a business, with paid employees operating outside of what I would consider a civil, responsible manner. If we can’t get cooperation, we’ll need to take steps to regulate these businesses so that other people can go about theirs.”


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