4 Things I Learned about Fundraising from Riding the NYC Subway

While living in New York I found, as most city dwellers do, that you tune out many panhandling requests. You have to when you asked for money multiple times a day. It's also hard to know who's genuinely needy and who's collecting coins to hit the liquor store. I prefer giving to nonprofits who address the roots of poverty, but sometimes I gave on the subway. The same was true on the streets of Washington, DC, where I just lived for nine years.

As I started doing more nonprofit fundraising, I noticed how I responded to requests for money. And it didn't matter where they came from -- nonprofit mailings, a street canvasser, or someone asking for change. Little by little I saw that no matter who asked me for money, I responded to the same things.

1.) Politeness. Like most people, I don't respond well to demands or insistence that I give money. I strongly believe we have a responsibility to care for each other, from the neighborhood to the global community. But if someone demands donations as if I owe them, I'm out.

2.) Being more than a donor.
The people I regularly gave to in my DC neighborhood were the guys who always greeted me, and who didn't ask for help every time I walked by. They would ask about my work, or if I still had a lingering cold. This, I realized, is like the fundraising principle that you value your donors for more than their money. And the stories I heard from these guys are ones I'll remember for years to come.

3.) Urgency. This has come up most when mothers with young children tell me they hadn't eaten that day. I have a hard time saying "no", even when I can't be sure the money is going for food. (Some people did ask for food directly.) In those moments I could imagine myself in the moms' shoes, and a small gesture on my part would hopefully ease someone's crisis just a little.

4.) Someone who makes me think. It's been nine years since I last saw her, but I still remember the woman on the L train who always greeted the whole car with "aren't you glad you woke up today?" I gave to her as a thank you for helping me regain perspective on tired, crabby days.

What was the real lesson? When asking for help, respect and compassion go hand in hand.