Fundraising behind a table in a supermarket guarantees a wonderful, steady stream of people with whom to talk about your work. If your group is lucky enough to nab such a slot, grab it!
But wow, staffing that table can take a thick skin; you’ll face a lot of disinterest. Rationally, I get it: people have come for ripe bananas, not to hear about your cause. But emotionally, as a (human) volunteer, it’s hard not to buckle under what can feel like a lot of personal rejection. We know this kind of outreach is well worth doing, but it ain’t easy. So this one’s for you, Supermarket Volunteers!
Wednesday, 8:42 a.m.
In the parking lot of my child’s school, a mother grabs my sleeve. “Hey, I want to talk about the bake sale, do you have a minute?” “Sorry, no, I’ve got a fundraising thing running at Whole Foods for work,” I apologize. When she looks confused, I continue: “The store is donating five percent of all sales, all day, to Bethesda Cares. I’ve got to make sure the person staffing the first shift is set,” I say. Blank stare. I try: “We are the people at the table you ignore as you walk into a supermarket!” Understanding dawns on her face and we agree to talk later.
I walk into Whole Foods. Just inside the doorway, my boss, taking the first shift, stands beside a table festooned with images of and information about Bethesda Cares and our work with our communities’ unsheltered and low-income residents. Whole Foods has unexpectedly given us an urn of hot cider, so we can offer free cups as a come-on to shoppers. I nod, pleased.
The table is in a fantastic, high-traffic spot, but every time the sliding door opens, a blast of cold wind whips past us. “I’ll text the other volunteers and let them know it’s a breezy spot,” I say, adding that the forecast is for warmer weather later in the day. She rolls her eyes; her shift ends at 10, so afternoon sunshine won’t matter much to her.
Sue turns away from me to greet a shopper with a bright, “Good morning! Would you care for some hot cider?” The shopper shakes her head “no” almost imperceptibly as she goes past, doesn’t even break stride. Next, Sue approaches a man looking at the display of apples next to our table. She tries a cheery “Hello! How about something hot to drink?” but the man, not even looking at her, walks away. Sue keeps the smile on her face; she has done this kind of outreach many, many times before. I wonder if she has learned not to take shoppers’ disinterest personally.
Everything seems in order, so I head to our office, hoping that Bill, Sue’s 10:00 replacement, will be on time, and that he will have a smooth shift. I keep my cell phone in my pocket in case he doesn’t.
Time for my shift. I return to the store to relieve the 10:00 volunteer. In good spirits, Bill briefs me on approaches that have worked for him thus far. “I kind of step in front of them, and ask if they’ve heard of our work,” he says. I think this might be too aggressive, but looking at the fishbowl he’s filled with slips of paper with names and emails of folks interested in our work, I reconsider. I thank him, and he goes off to shop. “Buy lots of coffee and steak!” I shout after him. “Buy expensive stuff, we get 5 percent!” He smiles politely; duh, he knows that. I turn my attention to incoming customers.
“Want some hot cider?” I call out, as a harried-looking woman about my age zips by. She calls back over her shoulder, “Sorry, not today,” and moves away. Feeling stung by her brush-off, I am amused at my own hypocrisy. Life is context, is it not? When I go to buy groceries, I am not interested in the Boy Scouts’ latest accomplishments. Standing at Bethesda Cares’ table, I hate it when shoppers ignore me.
Fretting silently, I watch the next few customers go by. I don’t feel like approaching them.
An elderly woman slows to look at our display, declines the hot cider, but listens to my spiel with interest and even some questions. She thanks me for my time, I thank her for hers, and feel buoyed enough to get back in the game.
My shift has ended. I am feeling pretty spent. My replacement, Teresa, strides in, full of both energy and experience. “Hey!” she calls to a shopper, “Five percent of what you spend today goes to Bethesda Cares, so shop ‘til you drop!” The woman grins back, and as Teresa bounds up to the next customer, I leave the store feeling like I’ve just had a shot of espresso.
I am back at our information table, filling in for an hour where a volunteer had to cancel. Rush-hour shoppers are much too focused on dinner prep to stop and talk. I stand there with a plastic smile, feeling stupid, fighting the urge to thumb through my phone for diversion.
Chazz, our Board Chair, unexpectedly walks in and asks if I’d like her help. “Yes!” I shout, throwing my arms around her. “Please! Company!” Revived, we spend a spirited hour trying to our best to chat up (but not pester) customers.
I have come and gone to the store throughout the afternoon to make sure all was well, and get a text from Sharon, our “closer,” who was packing up our materials at the end of the day. “How’d it go?” I ask. “Hard to say,” she types. “Things were kind of quiet, then we had this onslaught of people buying pumpkins just before closing, like there was some kind of pumpkin emergency.”
I head to bed, uncertain about the 13-hour outreach marathon we have just run.
9:00 a.m., the next morning
I get an email from our contact at Whole Foods. We have raised more than $5,000. I breathe in, breathe out, and start trying to figure out how to make sure I lighten up at our next event.