In Vietnam the Ace of Spades was a symbol, crammed into the mouths of women children, young men and villagers, massacred in the millions by the American genocide of that nation. Now adorning the walls of this colourfully painted downtown apartment are a series of Ace of Spades, with the names and faces of this year’s top salesmen attached. They sit alongside pictures of young children in poor villages around the world. All the usual suspects are present, the African child with the bloated belly sitting by mud huts, the south American, pudgy faced kids running around nearly naked, World Vision, Red Cross, Plan Canada all the major charities have their plaques, awards and photos crammed alongside one another.
The apartment that sits atop a café in the Bathurst area of Toronto has been converted into office space for two separate marketing companies working under the DCF umbrella and competing with one another in singing up sponsors for various charities. When I first started there I was apprehensive as the interview room was clearly a rotating door, decorated with magazines and a flat screen TV playing Seinfeld episodes. Yet seeing as how I had been out of work for a month and needed to pay off some student debt I decided to give it a shot, after all I was assured that most of my day would consist of chatting up young women on the street. My team, who had a collective run at the organization consisting of about 13 months, had assured me of this on my first day over a pint of beer.
The pay was near minimum wage to start, 11$/hour but I was assured that good salesmen who could bring in two sponsors a day would be making near 20$/hr on a salary which changed week to week. Quickly enough I learned that, that was what it was all about and the strategies being used to peddle charity were no different that those one would employ for snake oil. These men would sell bath salts door to door if they found it profitable enough and this was not merely part of their character but built into the corporate training of the entire organization.
“There are so many ways to kill a cat.” These words were spoken out by Patience, the gorgeous African boss who started up our morning meeting in the training room. “You know I like to put a picture of the child up near my face, so that when they say no, they’re not saying no to me. They’re saying no to the child.” Just one way to kill a cat I supposed, that one had been Patience’s strategy. There were others of course, never give an open ended question was the first revelation I came across. Asking if anyone has a moment to talk usually came with a quick response… NO. Asking if they would consider a program like this, or be interested in helping garnered the same reaction. Instead I was coached to ask yes only questions.
“You agree that all children have a right to education right?” Not many people answer no to that question and it keeps the potential sponsor engaged in the conversation. That particular piece of advice had been passed on to me by Cat, short for Catalan. Come to think of it all of the real salesmen, the Ace of Spades, had short salesmen like nicknames, Cat, Cam and Chip were the team I worked under most often. Cat delivered another useful tip during one of our morning training sessions. Cam had begun by writing “Bouncing Negs Yo…” on the blackboard, to which I commented “that’s kind of racist isn’t it?” Nobody seemed to understand the joke and we moved onto the task to of handling objections; I’m out of work, I have kids of my own, I’m a student, I support *** already, we don’t do door to door, I need to consult my spouse, I’m a single mother, were all common objections and as a group we would talk about ways to push past these reasons.
Catalan had a suggestion, “You know, about that whole single mother thing, Josh is actually the master at this. When they tell him that, he just says he was also raised by a single mom, tosses the flyer of some kid with a single mom into her hands and she’s putty.” This got a few smiles, a few chuckles, a few surprised faces and no objection from any mangers, after all that cat has to get killed somehow.
At the core of being a salesman, as Cam had said it, “You gotta mind fuck people.” This energetic 20 year old who had quickly become one of the company’s quick risers, liked to pump us up with talk like that and at least he was being honest with someone, not the sponsors of course but us at least. There are no illusions amongst these men that they were striving to help children, they knew nothing more about the charities they were promoting than what their pamphlets told others and they didn’t care. Cam had another useful tip when I had given him my pitch. “You know your educated and you know a lot about what the charities are doing but you don’t need to tell people all that. They know we’re a charity and nobody really cares, what you’re selling is yourself.”
Is an action good if it helps the poor but is derived by nothing more than greed? Do the ends justify the means? Does anyone really care? I don’t know but it seems worth asking the question, I quite my job after a week, having never once pressured someone into making a commitment they couldn’t afford, I helped no children and I’m okay with that.