Is Street Canvassing Still a Useful Tactic?

In the summer of 2004, I worked as a canvasser for Grassroots Campaigns, Inc., which is an independent organization that runs canvassing campaigns for good causes. I’m not actually sure if they are for-profit or not-for-profit. In my case, I worked as a street canvasser raising money for the Democratic National Committee. We would go out into various neighborhoods in Philadelphia, stop people ask they walked by, and try to convince them that they should donate to the DNC. More recently, I have been running into a lot of ACLU canvassers, who I suspect work for GCI as well.

From the perspective of the organization who the campaign benefits – whether that is the DNC, the ACLU, Planned Parenthood, or anyone else – and whether or not they operate their own canvassing campaigns, I can understand why this seems like a good idea. Canvassing serves as a way to both raise awareness and fund-raise for your organization or campaign, and it’s something that can easily employ a lot of people. By hiring an organization such as GCI, the main organization can devote most of their internal resources to other tasks besides canvassing. And I understand that all of these nonprofits need money in order to both sustain themselves and promote their agendas.

However, the more I think about canvassing — especially from the perspective of the person who gets stopped by canvassers — the more it seems like a tactic that has outlived its usefulness. I think canvassers are mostly a nuisance for several reasons. First, I think people who get stopped on the street are more likely to be annoyed than interested in whatever this person has to say. It may be that some of the people who get stopped are out for no particular reason and just wandering around, but most people are probably on their way somewhere, and will be annoyed by having to stop and listen to a spiel that is only going to result in their being asked for money. Second, the ask itself always seems too high, and it seems kinda sketchy to give money or credit card info to some random person on the street with a clipboard and a t-shirt representing some cause. Third, if a person already cares and can afford to give to said organization, wouldn’t they have already given them money? If someone cares, but cannot afford to donate money, the canvassers are not generally prepared to direct that person to volunteer opportunities or other ways to help, because their job is to solicit donations only. Lastly, If the person doesn’t care, might there be a better way to conduct outreach to that person than by asking them for money immediately?

I believe that non-profits and campaigns both need to rethink their outreach and development strategies. There should be a two-pronged approach — one targeted at people who already agree with your mission, whether or not they can donate at the time, and one targeted at convincing new people that they should support your cause. These two different messages should be deployed across various types of media to reach different groups of people, and organizations should be prepared to offer those who cannot donate other ways that they can stay involved.

I can understand the idea that face-to-face interaction is a better way to connect with someone than a TV commercial or online campaign may be, but that doesn’t mean that the existing efforts are being conducted in a productive way. If an organization pouts and seems annoyed when I say I don’t want to donate but I’m interested in the cause, why should I keep them in mind when I am more able to do so in 5 or 10 years? If they can find ways to keep me engaged and convince me that they care that I care, I have much more incentive to keep their needs in mind when I do find that I have money I can donate. I think that the activism community needs to re-think how best to reach out to people, rather than iterating on old ideas. Just because it is still bringing in money is not enough of a reason for organizations to not reevaluate their methods from time to time and improve them.

So what do you think? Is there a reason, besides money, for campaigns and organizations to continue utilizing street canvassing teams? Is there a better way already out there to outreach and fund-raise?

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4 Responses to Is Street Canvassing Still a Useful Tactic?

  1. Pingback: Confessions of a Grassroots Campaign Inc Canvassing Vet | For-Profit Activism Awareness

  2. Doris says:

    Agree with you. I did some canvassing work before as well in Toronto for about 2 weeks. And then I started wondering if it’s the right thing to do for myself because the job was very physically and psychologically demanding in the winter. When I confessed this to my new coordinator I got laid off immediately because she thought I didn’t have the “heart” to do it. I was so relieved after I walked out of the job.

    I think on-street canvassing for donation is very challenging from the perspectives of the frontline canvassers and very annoying to people who don’t care about the cause or have no money to donate regardless whether they have a heart. I don’t think the whole canvssing campaign is effective in terms of fundraising, but it is VERY effective in awareness-raising. Even if I don’t talk the people through the entre pitch, simply a presence with the name and logo of the NGO with a person holding it is already advertisement marketing.

    I am not sure if on-street canvassing is really working but the sector that’s doing it in Toronto is definitely expanding. I see many smaller non-profits start out door-to-door canvassing recently. In fact I had done one for a month but the purpose was for awareness raising only and people are majorily friendly and open to learn when there’s no money involved. Not sure what it would turn out if it’s for fund-raising.

    I still think canvassing of any kind is still the most effective way to get meaningful word-spreading, way better than TV and internet. I think what needs to be changed is the mentality when canvassers are doing it, if you do it in a way that people automatically associate you with money, most people will walk away without even a look. If the Agency and NPO can consider canvassing as marketing and fundraising as plus, it would make the entire canvassing process so much more acceptable for walking by people and taking off stress for canvassers.

  3. Former Canvasser says:

    You should watch this video: it’s shit canvassers say after work:

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