Now that it’s summer, solicitors for organizations such as Greenpeace and Children International are almost as commonplace along Michigan Avenue as people toting shopping bags. “Do you have a moment for the environment?” one of these eager, usually young canvassers might say to passersby. Or, “Do you want to save the children?”

Most people don’t, at least not for these sidewalk charity hawkers. Ben Francavilla, who works for the environmental group Greenpeace, says that on a good day, maybe three generous souls will sign up to become members or donate money.  “I say, ‘Do you care about the environment?'” explains Francavilla, 26. “Because who doesn’t care about the environment?”

Around lunchtime on a recent weekday there were five Greenpeace workers hovering around the intersection of Michigan Avenue and Ohio Street. When asked to help out the environment, most people kept walking or said they had no time to talk. Francavilla says sometimes people are just flat-out rude: “One time I had a guy tell me, ‘I just ate a whale this morning.'” 

So, why do these charities even bother? 

Because they say sidewalk soliciting works—well enough, at least. Phil Radford, grassroots director for Greenpeace, says working on street corners has helped bring 4,400 members to the group since it opened its Chicago office last year.

On some days Greenpeace will dispatch up to 50 canvassers wearing light-blue polo shirts—mostly college students or recent graduates—across the city and suburbs, but mainly downtown. The group’s canvassers earn $12 to $13 per hour, and they try to sign up two to three new members each per day, says Radford. On a good day, he says, they might sign up 80 to 100 new members. “It’s definitely worth our while.”

Dolores Kitchin, spokeswoman for Children International, agrees. Using the streets for fundraising, she says, is good exposure for her organization: “It’s a new way to reach out, which allows face-to-face interaction with people who have seen our ads on TV and might have additional questions or might want to become sponsors.” Owen Watkins, whose marketing company Dialogue Direct runs Children International’s sidewalk campaigns, concedes that the tactic doesn’t yield “an immediate return on investment, but it pays off over a number of years” with long-term sponsors.

But if the sidewalks seem less crowded than usual with street solicitors, that may be because fewer groups have applied for—and received—permits for street soliciting so far this year compared with previous years. According to the City Council Committee on Finance, which issues the permits, only 15 organizations have received them. Last year, 33 groups were given permits, and in 2006, 49 got them.  But Finance Committee spokesman Donal Quinlan cautions not to read anything into the numbers—”they vary from year to year.”

Photograph: Jessica Henry