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SXSW Brings Crowds, Speakers, Bands ... And A Lot Of Money For Charities

Jorge Sanhueza-Lyon
Joshua Jackson stands by as Jesse Garcia high-fives a passerby outside the Austin Convention Center last week.

On the corner of Fourth and Trinity, right outside the Austin Convention Center, Khari Youngblood is trying to get pedestrians to stop and talk to him. It’s the last day of the SXSW Interactive festival, and participants with badges crowd the sidewalk. He compliments their clothes, yells jokes and puns, and when someone ignores him, he moves on to someone else.

Youngblood is a canvasser with Save the Children, an international nonprofit that promotes children's rights and provides aid and support worldwide. He came in from Los Angeles to solicit donations specifically during South by Southwest. He says potential donors here are much different than his normal clientele in LA.

“So many people are conscious of what’s going on around the world,” he says, “especially in areas like Houston, Puerto Rico and Florida after the hurricanes.”

Almost half a million people are expected to visit Austin during the 10-day festival, and charities like Save the Children are capitalizing on the foot traffic.

“It’s not really on par with anything else,” says Gail Arcamone, director of sustainer giving for Save the Children. “This is really an exceptional event that we get to participate in.”

SXSW is the charity’s kickoff to its busiest fundraising season.

“The numbers that we see of monthly donors that we’re recruiting during the festival has jumped over 200 percent during the time we are fundraising at the event,” Arcamone says.

Save the Children doesn’t measure its donations in dollars, but rather how many people sign up to make recurring monthly donations. Arcamone says on a typical day in Austin, canvassers get one person to sign up; during SXSW that number jumps to six or more.

The Art Of The Pitch

Save the Children gets its canvassers from a third-party organization, which offers up its most successful employees for SXSW. These employees say the way to raise the most money is through creative pitches.

Joshua Jackson, an Austin-based canvasser, says his tactic is flattery.

“I’m a compliment guy,” he said. “We all love to look nice. We like to get ourselves dressed up and come out, so I just compliment them on what I think they look good in.”

Chardai McKissack, a canvasser who traveled from Nashville, tries to convince SXSW attendee Brandon Feinen to donate. She asks him how much money he's spent so far on his trip to Austin and then explains Save the Children's efforts to fight human trafficking.

“She makes a very compelling case overall,” Feinen said. “[She's] really engaging. It’s very hard when you filter something through the lens and go ­– ‘I can pay for a vacation, I can drop $20.'”

While these pitches work for some people passing by, the canvassers also face a lot of rejection. Jackson says he can handle it, though.

"Guys we get told 'no' all the time," he laughs.

They all say a tough skin is needed to do this work and rejection fuels them to try harder.

While many of them raise more money than usual and meet personal records, they say it’s also exhausting.

“The hardest thing about doing this is keeping your voice throughout the entire time,” said Youngblood. “We’re all losing our voice, and I have a bucket of honey on us, just so we can keep our vocal chords.”

Claire McInerny is a former education reporter for KUT.
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