Face-to-face fundraising: Bill’s story

Anne Marshall of Up Fundraising pays tribute to the true skill and determination of a remarkable fundraiser, her friend Bill.

Written by
Anne Marshall
June 11, 2020

This is my friend Bill, aka Skillz. He’s from the South Side of Chicago. He’s doing telephone fundraising for us right now. It’s not an easy task. It wasn’t made easier by the fact Bill didn’t have the proper tech. He took a bus to our closed office, between trips to the food bank, to pick up a computer. 

I first met Bill when I was doing start-ups for a US agency. I moved to Chicago in  October 2005. It was pretty rough timing. I can still feel those icy Chicago winds. I don't think my feet ever recovered.

A lovely view of Chicago

I loved to fundraise. I was the best, wherever I went. When I first became a team leader in London, I quickly created the top performing team in the office. I was a 26-year-old white, middle class female. I could sign up any guy in a suit on Liverpool Street. One of my male colleagues once said in a leadership meeting, ‘Anne only gets sign ups because she wears a short skirt’. I gladly put him in his place, because along with the skirt, I also had a sharp wit, plenty of North London grit, and communication skills professionally honed at drama school – paid for by my father.

Bill earned his communication skills in Chicago’s South Side. Bill never went to university. No one paid for him to go to drama school. But Bill had charisma in buckets. With the smooth voice of one of those late night radio hosts, a mischievous sense of humour, a twinkle in his eye, and an ability to talk to anyone the way only somebody who has had to fight in order to survive can do. Bill was one of the best – he still is. 

Bill and I loved to fundraise next to each other, in the rain, or snow, it didn’t matter. We laughed all the time, reporting back every crazy comment from the public. On break, we smoked cigarettes under the roof of Borders on State Street, sipping hot coffee to keep ourselves warm. Most of all, we liked to fundraise next to each other because we were good. We had grit, mine from North London, his from the South Side. We were a good team.

One afternoon, a police car pulled up to where we were working, officers jumped out and started handcuffing him, pulling him towards the police car. In shock, and indoctrinated in my position, all I could muster was, ‘The jacket. Bill, take off the jacket’. The number one rule of street fundraising is don’t get arrested in your charity gear. Turns out, he was arrested for a crime he never committed and was back with us the next day.

A year passed and I was transferred back to New York, where I stayed for the rest of my time in the US. Shortly after I left, the new manager in Chicago and Bill had a falling out, and Bill left. I lost touch with him. A couple of years later, visiting Chicago with my partner, we bumped into Bill on the Magnificent Mile. It was a freezing night. I gave him a hug and my number. Later that evening he left me a voicemail saying he was homeless. I tried many times, but couldn’t reach him back.

I had kids, I moved back to the UK. Bill and I were in and out of touch. He became a viral news sensation, after a reporter passed him walking by in the dark,  held out a microphone to ask him to comment on the game and Bill said, ‘The Black Hawks even got black people liking hockey.’ (Watch it here). After his comment, he was invited on the morning news show. They didn’t pay him anything.

Bill appearing on TV after going viral

We returned to North America, I got in touch with Bill. Things had been difficult in his life. He was desperate to work again. He joined us last year, aged 50, and he still lifts up those around him, the way he used to lift me up.

Bill and I are lucky to be employed right now. I’m the Director of Field Operations. Bill’s calling lapsed donors. He signed a US$50 monthly donor yesterday.

Everyone’s racing to be the first to ‘return to normal’, testing out the personal protection equipment (PPE). I don’t want to guess what the new normal will be. All I know is that it’s been a privilege to work in the diverse, sometimes frustrating, always exciting, world of North American face-to-face fundraising.

Right before coronavirus happened, I had called the Certified Fundraising Executive International (CFRE). I told a very nice man that there should be a qualification that face-to-face fundraisers can do, some sort of accreditation. ‘Why don’t they just take the CFRE?’, the man asked me. I explained to him that we needed a qualification that recognised face-to-face work, communication and persuasive skills learned on the street, that employers would recognise for the skill and determination involved. He told me to put a proposal together and that they would submit to their board. He asked me to add how many people were there that would be interested in taking this qualification.

I’ve done alright in face-to-face fundraising, I’ve lived in different cities, worked in different countries. Agencies have sent me on trips to visit field sites, paid for exotic vacations to reward me. I’ve been treated well. What do we owe our fundraisers for their work, the ones that work year in, year out, outside through winters? Would a qualification add credibility to the fundraiser’s role? Is this something agencies and charities can work together on?

What do I owe Bill?

I at least owe him the recognition of his talent, which was always equal to, or more than mine. If you’re lucky enough to get a call from Bill, make sure you tell him so.

About the author: Anne Marshall

Anne Marshall

Anne Marshall is Director, Field Operations of the Canada division of North American agency Up Fundraising.

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