Canvassing - Not Just for Jehovah

salesman.jpgYou could be forgiven for thinking that doorknocking is, if not a relic from a bygone era of vacuum salesmen and Avon ladies, at least largely the domain of handshakers hot on the campaign trail and Jehovah’s Witnesses. But canvassing is beyond the mere purview of politicians and pastors.

For years, big international charities such as Unicef, Oxfam, Amnesty International, and more recently, Because I’m a Girl, have regularly hit up busy sidewalks across Canada. The environmental movement has our fair share of face-à-face teams too: Wilderness Committee, Greenpeace, Sierra Club and others all use street time as a way of fundraising and broadening support.Pay closer attention, and you’ll notice a quiet revival of this 1.0 version of “FaceTime” on doorsteps and streetcorners to pitch “persuadables” an idea, product, or vote.

The fate of canvassing as a community organizing tool as we know it really took a turn when a senator from Illinois ran a sophisticated ground campaign that changed the face of American politics. Using a supercharged combo of micro-targeting, a massive army of volunteer doorknockers, social media, and a suite of powerful online database tools, Obama’s 2008 (and later, 2012) presidential campaign quickly emerged as the gold star in community organizing at scale. In what became the biggest ground games in the history of political organizing, Obama’s volunteers knocked on a staggering millions of doors across the U.S. The success was twofold: not only a victory at the polls (twice), but a win by persuading people who might not have otherwise turned up to cast their ballots.

Few of us are immediately comfortable with striking up conversation on a stranger’s doorstep. I remember my first night of canvassing for the Conservation Voters of BC in Victoria, and how I routinely punted my more-seasoned canvassing partner to the doorstep to do the talking while I lingered in the backdrop, “supporting” with the clipboard. But the next evening it somehow felt easier, and the time after that I was surprised to find myself tingling in anticipation of new encounters, a peek into my neighbours’ richly diverse worlds and worldviews that I would likely have not otherwise seen.

In Canada, there is a nascent movement of regionally based environmental groups testing a hybrid of Obama-style campaign strategy mixed with tried and true community organizing as a way of successfully advancing issues. For example, Victoria-based Dogwood Initiative has amassed a legion of volunteer street and door canvassers across British Columbia over the years as the centrepiece of its successful No Tankers initiative. On the other side of the country, Ecology Ottawa has knocked on thousands of doors promoting a range of actions, most recently during the 2014 municipal elections to gauge community voting priorities. Even online organizations such as LeadNow.ca and SumofUs.org are moving some of their activities offline, hoping to capitalize on this tactic to bring new supporters into the fold.

Groups such as these are moved by the stats. It’s hard to argue with the numbers. A seminal 1999 study on canvassing revealed an astonishing six-fold increase in voter turnout after a personal doorstep conversation. Over the past two summers, Ecology Ottawa volunteers have knocked on 11,000 doors, resulting in the group’s electronic newsletter now going out to 15 percent of households in one particular ward. For a group such as Dogwood which has set an ambitious goal of winning over 10% of the population in each of BC’s 85 ridings in its quest for a referendum on decision-making power over crude oil tanker and pipeline projects in the province, these statistics make having in-person conversations, one at a time, riding by riding, an attractive and effective strategy. Especially when powered by a rapidly growing throng of super-volunteers.

The impact of in-person conversations on fundraising is equally impressive. According to a recent Globe and Mail article, half of MSF’s 45,000 current monthly donors started giving “because of a conversation they had with someone on the street or at their door,” with donations from in-person interactions over the past ten years jumping to $16.5-million and an average monthly gift of $16.

What’s behind all these numbers is a universal truism: we respond to personal contact. Canvassing--having real, live conversations that drive action about important issues with community members at their doorsteps--is a chance to advance our cause by growing and diversifying our supporters, recruiting new volunteers, and having meaningful connections which--let’s face it--most of us don’t usually make enough time for.

What would it mean for Canada’s freshwater community to harness this approach to building power? We are more than 2,500 groups and organizations strong, covering all corners of the country. That’s--ahem--a boatload of nascent people power. Even if half our community adopted a canvassing strategy into the core of our work, and set a modest goal of growing our lists by up to 10%, this could lead to building a collective list of 3.5 million Canadians actively connecting with freshwater issues on the ground. Getting to the point where we’re ready to do our thing both in streams and on doorsteps might mean a bit of a cultural shift in our organizations, refining our theory of change, and rethinking the kind of impact we want our work to ultimately have. It’s a conversation we need to start having.

Curious? Join us for our Applied Canvassing & List-building for Freshwater Engagement Training on March 5 at 11AM Pacific/2PM ET/3PM Atlantic. Free! Susi Porter-Bopp is the British Columbia Organizer with the Canadian Freshwater Alliance. Photo: Orlando /Three Lions/Getty Images.


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