Saturday, July 18, 2009

Have You Got a Minute for Canvassing?

Woman ringing a doorbell, holding a clipboard
When we hear our doorbell ring, if we're not expecting someone, we peer surreptitiously through the window to see if the bell ringers are holding clipboards. If they are, we don't answer the door.

When I go to the co-op around lunchtime lately, it's not uncommon to see two people in matching T-shirts, holding clipboards and roaming the city sidewalk outside the front door. They greet each person who walks near them (i.e., everyone, since they're encamped right by the door), with a friendly "Have you got a minute for the environment?" (or fill in the blank for whatever cause is on their shirts).

It's a brilliant verbal gambit, because it's hard to say no. I really wouldn't mind this attempted conversation if they actually wanted to inform me about the environment, or ask for a signature on a petition, but that's never what it's about. (I did stop to talk at least a couple of times, you see.) But it's always about asking for money.

Now that many people have caller ID and can screen out unknown callers, it seems that person-to-person fundraising has gotten more common. I knew a few people who canvassed during the summers back in college, but I never had anyone come to my door back in those days, and I'm sure I never saw anyone doing it in public spaces.

Why does it bug me so much? I think it's because I know they know that once you've met someone, even if it wasn't a self-initiated meeting, human nature makes us feel a bond of interdependence. And humans are wired for interdependence because our survival so often depended on it. After all, we aren't the biggest, the strongest, or the most well-armored, and we don't have the sharpest teeth or claws. We've got our brains and we've got each other, and that's it.

I read recently that canvassers are sometimes taught to touch the person they're talking to on the arm if they can, and that giving is much more likely from a person who has been touched. The fact that they know that and use it makes me mad.

The Village Voice ran an article about the street canvassers of Union Square, and after reading that, I realize we have it easy with our canvassers in Minnesota. According to the author, Elizabeth Dwoskin, the canvassers she talked to don't actually work for the organization they represent. They work for a professional canvassing organization, Dialog Direct, which is hired by organizations:

Although the Dialogue Direct website promises that its approach ensures "the fun stays within fundraising," about 40 percent of new canvassers quit in the first week.... Dialogue Direct expanded into eight American cities in 2003.... And nonprofits are finding that the in-your-face approach often works better than more traditional fundraising models like direct mail, telemarketing, and expensive television commercials.

"You want to access the general public, and no matter how advanced your technology, the best way to access the general public is to get people talking to people," says Dialogue Direct VP, Matt Bergin.
Right -- it's about "people talking to people" -- make that "people talking at people."

One canvasser quoted in the story said:
...every objection comes from a certain place: "Either a lack of comfort, a lack of information, or a lack of empathy." She admits that dialoguers can be annoying, but adds: "I think Martin Luther King was probably a bit annoying."
I know I don't lack empathy with these causes, and I generally don't lack much information on the topics the canvassers are flogging. I do lack comfort with their methods, so maybe that's it. If Martin Luther King had been standing on a street corner trying to raise money this way, he might have been better funded, but there wouldn't be a national holiday named for him.

The Voice article ends with an incredible verbatim verbal assault by one canvasser on a med student. The canvasser had only signed up one person for the day, and it was getting late, so he hounded this unfortunate woman halfway across Union Square, calling out her name, guilting her about how she spends her money, trying to compare his student loan debt to hers. She finally manages to get away from him, and the canvasser says to the reporter:
"Are we really that annoying that if you stop for 30 seconds, we're going to ruin your day? What's the big deal?" he asks. "Ninety percent of people say they don't have time because they have to go to work. They are so self-centered. They feel if they take 30 seconds, the whole world will come crashing down."
The answer to that is YES -- you really are so annoying that stopping for 30 seconds would ruin someone's day, especially if you're going to treat people the way he had just treated the med student. And we're not necessarily self-centered -- we're tired of being accosted constantly by people asking us for money. You don't know how much money we donate to causes of our own free will -- and you can bet that all of that money goes directly to the organization, without any of it being paid to a canvasser.

Which brings me to my final objection to canvassers -- how much of the money donated actually goes to the cause. According to the Voice article, in New York the Dialogue Direct canvassers are paid $10 an hour, plus bonuses: $50 for the day's third sign-up, $70 for the fourth, and $180 for the fifth. In other words, the more successful the canvasser, the smaller the percentage of money goes to the cause. Other canvassers are paid on commission, and it's not a small percentage of the total.

I realize all fundraising costs money, but I wonder if the organizations who employ canvassers, either directly or indirectly, realize that their potential audience is tuning them and their message out. When I hear the name Environment Minnesota, for instance, all I can think of is the canvassers at the co-op.

I doubt that's what EM had in mind when they decided on canvassing as a fundraising strategy.

Other resources:


Jeanne said...

Hey, Pat! Have you got a moment for my pet peeve?

One of our co-op members sent me this article: on the same subject, with many of the points you make.

The "chuggers" outside your co-op are not employed directly by the organizations for which they are soliciting. In an attempt to make your point (about these tactics doing more harm than good), I have called all of the local offices of the array of charities these folks solicit for over the years. Only one has ever returned my call (so I love Human Rights Watch, because at least their local chapter head had the good grace to apologize).

Walking the solicitation gauntlet a dozen times a day at my workplace is more than an irritation. But the sidewalk is public space, so my only recourse is to ignore them a dozen times a day while muttering under my breath.

Sore spot? Yes. It is.

Daughter Number Three said...

I hadn't thought about how much worse it is for anyone who works at one of the businesses targeted by canvassers. Gauntlet is the right word for it.

The only good thing is that they're mostly around only during the summer months.

Unemployed Dragon said...

Thank you, Thank you, Thank you!!!

It Gauls me to no end, as I walk through the Castro, here in San Francisco, to be asked "Have you got a minute to fight Prop 8?" or "Got a minute to support gay rights?" be put in the position of having to say "no". OF COURSE I WANT TO FIGHT PROP 8!!, but I don't want to give my name and address to someone who, tomorrow will be collecting signatures for some other worthy cause (children, rivers, redwoods,etc.).

I don't want to end up on another list from which I will recieve mail for years and years, soliciting money.

I'm pretty well informed, I don't have any money anymore, so I'll decide how to donate my time, talent and what little treasure I have.

Not that I have any opinions about this!

Jeanne said...

Depending on your source, "gauntlet" might not be the right term, Pat! I think I meant "gantlet."


Daughter Number Three said...

It's funny -- I've seen this meaning spelled both gauntlet and gantlet. But when I look in my trusty Websters Collegiate (c. 1974, admittedly) it says gauntlet is correct, and doesn't even list gantlet as an alternate. The only definition of gantlet is something to do with railroads.

emily said...

I have a moment for the environment. I have a life time for the environment.
I am a canvassing office director. Thats right, I actually train, hire, and fire all of those crazy kids out there.
We go to various places throughout the country, knock on doors, and stand on the streets informing citizens as well as getting them involved. It may seem on the surface that we want to get peoples money, but in reality we want you to become members. My canvassing organization works for political lobbying nonprofits where the member number base is what gives us political sway. Without the contributions that we get from our members we would not be able to keep our government in check, big businesses from taking advantage of us, and help those who are taken advantage of throughout the world. As far as how much money goes directly to the cause- Grassroots Campaign (Amnesty International, Children International) uses over 25% for fund raising, while my organization The Fund for Public Interest (Human Rights Campaign, Environment America (or also the statewide coalition like EM), and PIRG) utilizes only 18% of all of its funds for the canvassing offices throughout the nation. Trust me, I have an office without windows and a broken three hole punch. As far as the bonuses go, the amount of canvassers that sign up more than four members a day is very few a far between. You can easily make the quota with just two or three members so the agressive people who may have met at your co-op are most likely to be not working for the organization anymore due to their poor style.
Canvassers all are driven to do well in their work because they want to inform you on how you can be more involved in helping what you already care about.

Daughter Number Three said...

Emily, I really do appreciate your commitment, and I recognize that organizations need to build their membership bases to have an impact. I also believe your office is under-resourced when it comes to hole-punchers and the like.

However, I think that canvassing in the way I have seen it done is counterproductive, and that a huge percentage of what should be your natural audience is disaffected by the method, making it work against you in the long run.

And costs of either 18 or 25% sound too high to me, when I think of the ratings by unbiased groups like Charity Navigator. According to CN (see full explanation here), groups with a 15-20% fundraising expense rate a marginal 5 out of 10, while those with a 20-25% cost rate only a 2.5 out of 10.

rachel said...

Canvassing is about taking issues that are important to people and making them real, and giving people a chance to get involved. These huge abstract issues like the environment are overwhelming; we are bombarded by them in the media and it is frustrating and exhausting. A canvasser's job is to get through the apathy to give us concrete evidence of a problem, propose a solution and let us get involved. At the very least they get us talking and thinking about the issues, which is a vital part of the democratic process.

If you don't want to talk to them you don't have to. You can smile and say no thank you, and if they know what they are doing they'll forget your existence and focus on the next person in front of them. Of course there are going to be examples of canvassers breaking down and being rude or silly; it is an incredibly hard job that really doesn't pay very well. Canvassers face rejection all day every day, and it takes practice to not let it get you. The reason most don't last very long is because it requires a great deal of skill, passion and thick skin.

Of course plenty of the money goes to pay the canvassers. They are not just fundraisers, they are important parts of the campaign as they raise awareness and are the face of the organization to the public.

Who cares if they are not employed directly by the organization? There is nothing sinister about several nonprofits sharing the same group of canvassers, it's just more efficient.

The fact is, people don't like canvassers because they remind us of problems we cant solve and want to forget and it makes us uncomfortable. We spend so much of our lives trying to disconnect and put up walls that when someone touches our arm we pull out our wallets. There is the real problem.

Icarus Lear said...

Hi. I'm a canvasser, and I totally understand where you guys are coming from. However, I'd like to point out a few things. First of all, not all canvassing organizations are the same. Both canvassing organizations I've worked for have demanded under penalty of being fired that we be passive canvassers. That means that we stay in one spot the entire day, we never chase after people, and when someone makes it clear in any way that they're not interested in talking to us, we just say "Have a good day!" and move on the next person.

On that subject, to everyone here who says they outright ignore canvassers: I understand your annoyance and your frustration, but please remember that we are human beings too. It's pretty dehumanizing when you give someone a friendly greeting, one human being to another, and they pretend you don't exist. Next time, just say "No thanks" or "Sorry, no". There's only one canvassing group I know of that lets their canvassers be more aggressive than that. If the canvasser is a professional, they'll leave you alone after that.

To those of you who complain that canvassers often don’t work directly with the organization they represent: It would cost the organizations a lot more to hire, train, and manage their own in-house team of professional canvassers. So in the long run, we actually save them money.

To those of you who complain that if you donate with a canvasser more of your money is going to overhead than if you had donated online: You're right that some of the money you donate goes to paying our salary, but here's the thing. Having us out on the streets is incredibly beneficial to the organizations we represent. It gets them a lot more money than they would if they just relied on their website, because seeing us on the street reminds you of two things: that these important causes exist, and that the organizations that fight for them need donations to continue making an impact. By giving with us, you’re keeping us out on the streets, which ensures the organizations we represent will get a lot more contributions and public support than they would had canvassing never been invented.

What we do is vital also because we educate the public about the issues. Did you know it’s currently legal in twenty-nine states, the majority of the country, to harass, deny promotions and raises, and even fire gay and transgender people, just for being gay or transgender? If you didn’t, you should really talk to a canvasser from the the Human Rights Campaign about helping pass us the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA), which would make this horrible practice history. (Sorry, couldn’t resist a plug haha. :) ) The point is, canvassers educate the citizenry and remind them that the easiest most effective way to make a big impact is to contribute to the causes that they believe in.

Voting is obviously important in a democracy, but the reality is that money is power, and a dollar is worth a thousand votes. The easiest and most effective way to make a real impact is to donate to organizations that champion what you see as just and righteous. From this perspective, canvassers are facilitators of direct democracy. Canvassers are the new voting booth.

I welcome any comments, constructive criticism, or questions you'd like to share. :)

Have a great day!