Canvassing is a technique that involves a team of people from your organization going door-to-door requesting contributions for your group's work. This is primarily an organizing strategy; no organization should undertake a canvass simply to raise money. That said, a well-run canvass can generate a lot of gross income.
Advantages and Disadvantages of Canvassing
There are three main advantages to canvassing as a fundraising strategy:
1. An established, well-run canvass can provide a reliable and substantial source of income for your organization.
2. The volume of personal interaction from face-to-face contact with dozens of people can bring in more new members than any other strategy.
3. Canvassers bring back to the organization the public's opinions and perceptions of what your organization is doing.
The disadvantages to a canvass:
1. If done full-time with paid canvassers, they are labor-intensive, generating high overhead that absorb 60%-80% of the gross
2. It requires separate staff and office space as well as extensive bookkeeping and supervision.
3. Canvass income can be unreliable if the top canvass staff is disorganized or incompetent or if too many canvasses are operating in an area.
4. The canvassers themselves can give the organization a bad reputation if they are unkempt or rude.
5. Donors do not like giving to organizations that use canvassing because of high overhead costs.
Elements Needed to Run a Canvass
Four elements must be present for an organization to operate an effective canvass:
1. The organization must work on local issues: people give when they perceive that an issue affects them and their neighborhood. Your work can have a national impact, but in canvassing you must explain how this issue affects the resident directly.
2. People must feel that even a small donation will make a difference. Donations made to canvassers rarely exceed $50. People must feel that their small donation is needed and will be well used.
3. People must feel confident about your organization. Their confidence will be inspired by your organization's accomplishments. A specific plan of action that can be explained simply and quickly and that sounds effective is essential. Media coverage of your work is a major boon to canvassing.
4. You must be able to distinguish your organization from any other organization doing similar work without implying any disrespect for the other organization.
Setting Up a Canvass
First, check state and local laws and ordinances concerning canvassing. You can find out about state laws governing canvassing from the attorney general's office, which generally monitors all rules related to charitable solicitation. Many states publish handbooks on canvassing regulations. Local ordinances are sometimes more difficult to discover, since several city departments may have jurisdiction over different parts of the canvassing operation. Contact the police department and ask for notification and
Study the Demographics
Gather demographic data on the area you plan to canvass: population density, property values, how many of the people are homeowners, what type of work most people do, what the income levels are, etc. This information is available from various sources, including local people, items in the newspaper, volunteers and board members who have lived in the area, the Chamber of Commerce, and from developing your own sense from driving around the neighborhoods.
Remember one important point in assessing demographic data: A canvass rarely does well in an affluent neighborhood. In fact, affluent people generally do not make contributions at the door. Their charitable giving is usually done through major gift solicitation, personal mail appeals, or special events. Canvassing operations do best in middle and lower-income neighborhoods, where giving at the door is more common.
Another demographic item you need to evaluate is whether the population is dense enough to make it worthwhile to canvass. Canvassers need to be able to reach 80 to 100 homes per night.
Finally, you need to evaluate whether the area is safe for canvassers. A good canvasser may be carrying $500 or more by the end of the evening, much of that in cash. Canvasses in high-crime areas (which can still be successful) sometimes send their canvassers in pairs, but this doubles the labor cost. Others have a roving car to check in on canvassers and to pick up their cash.
The staff of a canvass varies from place to place but generally includes several individuals with the following roles:
- Canvass Director: This person supervises the entire canvass operation, including hiring and firing canvassers, researching areas to be canvassed and mapping out the revolving canvass for the area over the course of a year, keeping the organization in compliance with the law, keeping up-to-date on new laws, and planning and updating materials.
- Field Manager(s): Each of these staff transports and supervises a team of five to seven canvassers. Each field manager assigns their team to various parts of the neighborhood, collects the money at the end of the evening, and trains new canvassers on the team. This person also participates as a canvasser.
- Office Manager: This support person manages the office, including keeping records of money earned by each canvasser, replacing canvass materials as needed, scheduling interviews with prospective canvassers for the canvass director, answering the phone, and generally acting as a back-up person for the canvass operation. This person does not canvass.
- Canvassers: These are the people who actually carry out the canvass. They usually have a quota - an amount of money they must raise every day or every week. Their pay is either a commission, a straight salary, or, most commonly, a base salary plus commission.
Canvassers must be equipped with various materials, including any identification badges or licenses required by the city or state, newspaper clippings about the work of the group, a receipt book, and clipboards to carry the materials to be given away which include brochures about the organization and return envelopes.
Many canvassers use a petition to get the attention of the person being canvassed. The canvasser will ask, "Would you sign a petition for..." and briefly explain the cause. While the person is signing, the canvasser will ask for a donation as well.
Canvassers should try to get the gift right at the door. However, for people who need to think or discuss it with a roommate or spouse, the canvasser can leave a brochure and a return envelope. A brochure should also be given to people making a donation, because on reading it, some of them will send an additional donation. Do not assume when people say they need to think about your request that they mean they are not going to give - leave the materials and act as if you believe the person. Most people do not give money on the spur of the moment, and people who need to think about what their gift will be to your group may well become major donors.
All of the information is carried on a clipboard, which makes it easy to display and lends a degree of authority to the canvasser.
The Canvasser's Workday
At the beginning of the canvasser's workday, the field manager describes the neighborhood they will be canvassing and relates any information or special emphasis on issues that they should present to this neighborhood. The crew begins canvassing around 4PM and ends at 9PM, when they are picked up by their field manager and taken back to the office. They turn in their money, make their reports, and finish around 10PM.
Second only to quality of canvass staff in ensuring the success of a canvass is an efficient recordkeeping system. After each neighborhood is canvassed, an evaluation of the neighborhood should be filed along with the demographic data on that neighborhood that led to its being chosen as a canvass site. These data can then be reevaluated in light of the canvassers' experience. Any special considerations, such as "no street lights," can also be noted in the evaluation.
Many people worry that theft by canvassers will be a problem. Theft occurs no more often by canvass workers than by any others. Careless bookkeeping, however, can cost money and can give the impression that money has disappeared. At the end of the evening, both the canvasser and the field manager should count each canvasser's money brought in. The field manager enters the amounts under each canvasser's name on a "Daily Summary Sheet." The money and the summary sheet are then placed in a locked safe, and the office manager will count the total again in the morning and make a daily deposit to the bank. At the end of the week the office manager tallies the total receipt of each canvasser and prepares the payroll sheet.
Canvassers who fail to bring in their quota for more than a week must be retrained or fired. Strict discipline is important in a successful canvass, and keeping performance records will help to maintain a good canvass team.