THEY'RE EVERYWHERE. On street corners and in front of libraries. Outside grocery stores and Portland Saturday Market. On the sidewalks and at your door. Canvassers. Armed with clipboards, forms, and pens, they roam through Portland's summer, attempting to relieve you of your money. Who are they? What's it like to be one? And what happens if you actually give them your cash? Gentle readers, worry not. All of your questions (well, most) are answered herein.
I'm broke, unemployed, and thinking about monetizing my plasma. I need a job. Should I be a canvasser?
Canvassing jobs are shockingly easy to get. Go to Craigslist, click on "nonprofit sector," and you'll immediately have a collection of screaming capital letters in front of your eyeballs, often accompanied by a variety of asterisks and exclamation points. Like this:
****SUMMER JOBS TO PROTECT CRATER LAKE*****$9-$14/HR.!!!
Absolutely none of these ads actually say the word "canvasser," and several only used the word "canvass" in the fine print. The ads trade on idealism, enthusiasm, and the desperation of people for whom $9 to $14 an hour actually warrants effusive punctuation. A few years ago, I was one of those people.
In early 2009, I returned to my hometown of Portland after some time abroad. Having only a vague idea of what the economic situation was like in the US, I went out looking for a job. I responded to virtually everything on Craigslist, including the canvassing ads. I was living out of a backpack, and willing to take just about anything.
Fairly soon, one of them yielded a response. I got an email from a company called DialogueDirect, which said it was hiring canvassers (or "dialoguers" in the company parlance) to go forth onto the streets of Portland and collect money for Children International, a child-sponsorship program. The email told me to report for training at a downtown office in a little more than a week. I was shocked, but also kind of pleased, by the speed at which they got back to me.
I arrived at the office with several other job seekers. The crowd was mostly young-looking, and the conversations were almost universally about how happy everyone was to finally have work of some kind. My fellow trainees had been unemployed for weeks and months and needed a job—any job. One of the DialogueDirect employees handed out clipboards of hiring forms. After we scrawled out our information, Mateo, the campaign manager, came out to make introductions.
Mateo explained that DialogueDirect was one of the largest and most successful for-profit fundraising companies in the US, and claimed that it gave Children International a 150 percent return on its investment. Canvassing, he told us, was the single most cost-effective method of raising funds for nonprofits. Better than TV ads, telethons, or brochures in the mail were boots on the ground. He told us that going up to people, talking to them on the street, and getting them to donate right then and there was the best way for nonprofits to raise cash.
Mateo was very outgoing. He told us that this could be the easiest job in the world, and that anyone could do this. He told us we could go home every night knowing that some kid in a Third World country had access to clean water because of the money we were raising. He told us that after we signed someone up to sponsor a kid, they'd walk away feeling like a million bucks. He also told us that after we reached our quota of two signups a day, we'd get commissions. If we signed up three people in a single day, we'd get an additional $70. Four signups would yield $180. That was the kind of money I could live on easily.
I hit the streets the next day, binder in hand. I had sign-up sheets to take down people's information and info about Children International, explaining what, in fact, this nonprofit did. Most potent of all, I had a picture of a sad-looking little Third World kid with which I could potentially play on people's guilt. Mateo had taught us to make eye contact and engage the target as much as a block away. We were to lead with small talk. If a pedestrian had a weird hat, I'd go with that. If they had a Blazers shirt on, I'd try to get them to talk about sports. Only after two or so minutes of pseudo-friendly chat were we to drop the pitch on them.
Most people ignored me, and plenty of folks did give me a simple, polite hello. The vast majority of people were nice, and a grand total of one guy told me to eat a dick. I told him to have a nice day.
Several passers-by made their excuses for not signing up—one woman in sunglasses took my hand and said (sincerely, I think), "I'm sorry." I had a nice conversation with a guy from Sri Lanka, I gave directions to a Japanese tourist, and a whole lot of homeless guys wanted to talk. It was a great gig for mingling—I enjoyed the liveliness that came from being on a city street corner. It was not great, though, for actually getting Portlanders to sponsor Ecuadorian kids. During my three days, I got only one sign-up. Meanwhile, the attrition rate of my cohorts was something to behold. Most of my fellow hires didn't enjoy trying to engage the public as much as I did. Lunchtime was a litany of complaints—one guy had even been spat on. After the first day, most were gone.
At the end of my three-day grace period, Mateo sat me down in his office and fired me. He said he had to—company policy. He offered to be a reference, if I needed one.
"I'm impressed that you didn't quit," said Mateo, "Most people quit."
Let's say I take a canvassing job. How can I avoid getting fired?
My results were typical. Canvassing is a grinder and it chewed me up and spat me out just the like the vast majority of people who take up the clipboard. No current canvassers would talk to me on the record for this piece, but those I spoke to had usually not been doing it for terribly long.
Unlike me, Corinna Beyer and Eva Coleman were actually good at their jobs. Beyer worked for the Oregon State Public Interest Research Group (OSPIRG) and Human Rights Campaign for two summers, and Coleman went door-to-door for Bark, a local nonprofit, for a year and a half. Both of them consistently made enough money to not be fired, and both of them were made of stern enough stuff to not quit after a week. In other words, they were the kind of canvassers that organizers like Mateo are trying to get as they field test a giant group of new hires and winnow out losers like me.
"A good canvasser is genuinely interested in their cause and getting people involved," says Coleman, "And has the skill it takes to make people comfortable... they leave people feeling like they're part of the community and that they can get involved." Beyer reiterated the importance of sincerity. "The people who are successful at it, they do it because they believe in it, and because they believe in it, they make more money."
Beyer also stressed the importance of body language and appearance. "You need to have an appearance people can relate to. A button-up shirt is going to be way more successful in some neighborhoods than others... Match your appearance to the people you're talking to. And match your language to them, too, both verbal language and body language... If I start nodding, the majority of people will start nodding back. Have the type of body language that exudes agreement and friendliness."
Both Beyer and Coleman were laid-back about the rejections they faced. "Most people were okay," says Coleman. "Sometimes it was kind of comical. You'd get really conservative people who'd slam the door on your face and say 'I want to kill barn owls' or 'old-growth trees? I wanna cut 'em all down.' Something stupid."
Okay. So even if I'm actually good at it, how much money can I actually hope to make?
Not much. When I worked for DialogueDirect, I made $9 an hour. Beyer estimated that, even as a successful canvasser, she was making about $1,000 a month, which she characterized as enough to live on as a college student, but not as an adult.
I'm a progressive Portlander who likes trees and abortion. Who are these people? Should I give them my money? How does that work?
There's no shortage of advocacy groups soliciting funds in Portland. This place is progressive, and the squishy liberal wallets of the citizenry make for tempting targets. See the end of this article for some of the folks you'll spot angling for your cash this summer.
What happens if I give them my money?
Most organizations are now soliciting monthly donations. When you sign up with a canvasser, they'll probably ask you not for a single large sum, but for a more modest monthly amount. "A lot more people feel like they're able to give five dollars a month compared to sixty dollars at that time," says Beyer. "And, there's the laziness factor. It takes a bit of initiative to be like 'No, I no longer want to give this organization—which I really do honestly care about—five dollars a month.' ...Causing them to face that moral dilemma over and over again is much more valuable for an organization compared to getting one sixty-dollar donation and maybe never hearing from that person again."
Being an ardent supporter of baby-free sex, I agreed to make regular donations to Planned Parenthood some time ago, and saw this very thing at work. When I was speaking with the canvasser, I demurred at monthly donations and asked if I could just do a one-time thing of 20 bucks. She said that they weren't set up for that. Monthly donations it was. Every month, 10 bucks was whisked from my checking account, and unless times were exceptionally lean, I hardly noticed it. When I did see their debit on my statement, I'll admit to having a little twinge of fuzzy liberal satisfaction that I was making the world a slightly better place for doin' it. And Beyer is absolutely right—I was too lazy and unmotivated to cancel my donations.
I now also get a metric ton of spam from Planned Parenthood on a regular basis. They've pegged me as someone who's in their corner, and I get a steady stream of emails about how reproductive rights are under attack, and they need my help (i.e., money). As much as I agree with their cause, I delete all of them. The solicitation doesn't end with the canvasser. Writing down your information, giving them your credit card info, walking away—that's not the end of the solicitation. Once they know who you are, the ask never ends.
Most of the canvassers you see on the streets of Portland work for Grassroots Campaigns (GC), an umbrella organization founded in Boston in 2003 that now operates fundraising campaigns all over the country for Democratic candidates and progressive nonprofits. In 2006, GC was sued in Oregon by former canvassers who had been working the John Kerry campaign.
No canvassers from GC would agree to speak on the record for this article, and neither the national nor the local office returned any calls asking for an interview.
Do you like sex? Do you like freedom? Do you like sexual freedom? Planned Parenthood is all about that. Its canvassers generally wear dark pink shirts with the Planned Parenthood logo clearly emblazoned on the front.
You know who these guys are. They're all about free speech, freedom of assembly, freedom of religion, freedom of everything. Even for Nazis! Canvassers with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) usually don't wear anything distinctive, but their clipboards usually have the recognizable Statue of Liberty logo somewhere on them.
The Nature Conservancy
The Nature Conservancy is one of the larger environmental nonprofits in the country, and it works to preserve threatened land throughout the world. Their canvassers are easily identifiable, generally wearing green fleece vests or jackets.
The Oregon State Public Interest Research Group (OSPIRG) is exactly what it sounds like—it's a research group. It and other PIRGs research and advocate for disparate progressive causes such as food safety, environmental standards, and high-speed rail.
You won't see a whole lot of OSPIRG canvassers downtown or in other busy districts. These are the people who come to your door. Into your space. Asking for money. You cannot simply walk past them—if you want to avoid them, live in an apartment.
The Fund for the Public Interest
The Fund for the Public Interest is a nonprofit fundraising organization that grew out of the PIRG system. Right now, the Fund has two major canvassing partners in Portland: Human Rights Campaign and Environment America. And it's loosely affiliated with the local PIRG system.
Human Rights Campaign
HRC was founded in 1980, and works toward greater LGBT rights and recognition. Its canvassers generally aren't readily identifiable, but its distinctive equal-sign logo is emblazoned on a fair amount of its equipment.
Environment America is exactly what it sounds like—an environmental advocacy group. Its angle in Portland is preserving Crater Lake specifically.
DialogueDirect is an independent for-profit fundraising company founded in Austria in 1995. As with Grassroots Campaigns, none of the canvassers for DialogueDirect agreed to speak on the record, and the national office did not answer any requests for interviews. When I went to the local offices, I was shown the door. DialogueDirect has one client in Portland: Children International.
Children International is a child-sponsorship program. Like the name says, it focuses on providing basic services to children in Third World countries. If you do give its canvassers your money, you'll get regular updates on how a particular kid is doing, and maybe even the opportunity to become pen pals. If you're one of those freaks who fetishizes snail mail, this is the nonprofit for you. They can often be spotted wearing blue jackets or vests.
Oxfam offers humanitarian aid around the world. Originally founded as a famine-relief organization, it has since expanded into providing services such as utilities and advocating for social justice. Oxfam canvassers are easy to spot—they usually wear light-green T-shirts with the distinctive Oxfam logo on it.
Bark is a local environmental nonprofit working to preserve Mount Hood National Forest. Of all the organizations canvassing on the streets of Portland, Bark is probably the most focused and locally minded. They're about preserving Mount Hood National Forest. That's it. They also seemed to have the least disgruntled canvassers. Most of the other canvassers who spoke off the record expressed a certain amount of ambivalence about their jobs. A Bark canvasser who once worked for GC (and who still wasn't okay with me recording our conversation) said his new gig was vastly better by comparison. Eva Coleman, who worked for Bark for more than a year, had nothing but good things to say about her former employer and called it an "enjoyable job."