The Art of Canvassing

They've got a pitch, and a strategy that would make a football coach proud.

Canvasser William White stands in the middle of the sidewalk on Shattuck Avenue, just to the side of The Cheese Board in North Berkeley. About twenty feet away, on the other side of the restaurant’s entrance, White’s partner, Stella Mitchell, faces him, catching the southbound traffic. She’s strategically placed to catch the brunt of the foot traffic, and seems to be having slightly better luck than her supervisor.

“Peace today?” White calls out to an approaching pedestrian.

“I’m all for peace,” says the man, brushing by.

“Then take a moment and hear what I have to say.”


The call-and-rejection play continues with the next ten people, who sheepishly slink by, heads bowed, mumbling the standard excuses. But then White manages to reel in his first catch of the day.  

He makes eye contact with a young woman, baby strapped to her chest, and begins his well-polished spiel, a concise statement devoid of “ums” or pauses and replete with attention grabbers like “nuclear warheads” and “a billion dollars.” The woman listens attentively at first, but when the donation pitch comes, she grows hesitant and says she’d rather donate online. White briefly bargains, offering her several rapidly cascading membership options, starting with a dollar a day and gearing down to a one-time twenty-buck deal. But the line’s already gone slack, and a moment later, she’s gone.

White and Mitchell are among the robust army of young, progressively minded, low-wage street-soldiers who emerge ubiquitously at peak moments in bustling thoroughfares throughout the Bay Area. They appear with clipboards or binders, campaign materials and credit card forms in hand, stump speeches polished and rehearsed. The manifold groups — Peace Action West, Save the Children, the Democratic National Committee, Environment California, Greenpeace, to name a few  — may have disparate missions, but to many a passerby, they’re one in the same, out for cash, and often not all that appreciated.

Despite the seemingly Sisyphean task of getting strangers on the street to hand over cash, it’s apparently effective enough that a lot of organizations continue to rely on it for an ample percentage of their fund-raising engines. According to White, the major Bay Area canvassing organizations generally avoid direct competition through agreed-upon time slots and a coordinated online street reservation system that allows each group exclusive access to choice neighborhoods like North Berkeley, downtown Berkeley, and San Francisco’s Castro and Financial districts. (Despite its heavy foot traffic, Lake Merritt is a wash, says White.)

The canvassing operation of White’s employer, Peace Action West, used to be door-to-door, but recently transitioned exclusively to the streets as a more efficient way for its small staff of roughly six to reach the greatest number of people. Almost all its $2.2 million budget comes from individual contributions, and 12 percent of that revenue is generated on the sidewalk, according to PAW’s Communications Director Reva Patwardhan. “The rest comes from our existing membership, and my educated guess is that about 95 percent of those renewing members who give through our phone, Internet, and mail programs originally became members through some form of canvassing,” she said.

There is an art to canvassing. To outsiders, it can look like a constant flow of rejection, a form of tragic street theater. The typical pedestrian — even if he or she supports the cause at hand – just doesn’t want to be bothered. Yet in the left-leaning areas of the most iconic liberal strongholds, highly entertaining splashes of psychology can weave their way into painfully awkward interactions between skilled canvassers and unsuspecting pedestrians. The former often know adeptly how to apply the guilt. Try as we might, it’s sometimes flat out difficult to just say “no” and walk away when confronted with a question like “Do you want to help feed starving children?”

Along those lines, the longer a canvasser can keep a passerby captive, the harder it often becomes for he or she to walk away without at least a token contribution. Which is why any seasoned canvasser knows the necessity of an initial high-impact greeting, quickly followed by the smooth succinct rap that sets the hook. Eye contact is crucial, says White, as is high energy and a brimming level of confidence. This is not a job for the meek or easily discouraged. A self-assured canvasser can have that magnetic quality that makes escape difficult. Even on the crappiest days, White refuses to go home empty-handed.

“You gotta be really quick,” White said. The majority of pedestrians don’t slow their pace at all, and of the handful who do, few are likely to stick around longer than about ten seconds. “People on the street are always in a rush and want you to get to the point.”

Street donations are generally small, but the possibility of a big one is always there. White once received $500 in one fell swoop, and heard of a DNC canvasser who, prior to the 2008 election, got a clean $24,000 check — the maximum contribution allowed by law. It’s the stuff of legend.

“You really never know who’s going to be that one,” White said. And when that proverbial sweet kiss finally comes around, he said, “it’s an amazing feeling. … It really energizes you. It makes you more effective for the next person.”

There are also the minor props, namely the informational clipboard. Handing it to someone can be quite effective, says White. “It literally puts the ball in your court.” Some canvassers take a more aggressive tack, and make it hard for people to return the clipboard. One North Berkeley resident described an interaction with a Save the Children canvasser who knocked on the front door and shoved a clipboard in his hands. The man declined to contribute and tried handing back the materials. “I have to go,” he said, “I have a little child upstairs,” to which the canvasser beseeched: “But what about all the other children?”

Sometimes, canvassers resort to desperation. White cut his teeth on New York’s bustling downtown streets, where he spent several years canvassing for the for-profit lefty fund-raising behemoth Grassroots Campaigns, Inc. At the end of a miserable day, he’d sometimes fall down on his knees before a businessman and, in the most pathetic tone he could muster, screech, “Please!” “At least it’d get some laughs out of folks,” he recalled, grinning.

In New York, White also learned various maneuvers to handle the flood of pedestrians at rush hour, with the goal of hitting up the maximum number possible. His arrangement outside The Cheese Board, in which he and Mitchell face each other at a distance to catch people from both directions, is the most simplistic of the arsenal of formations that would likely get the admiration of a football coach.

Of course, the volumes of people in New York (and sometimes San Francisco) call for a bigger canvassing team. If there are three people, forming a triangle position on the street is effective in funneling the traffic and catching the periphery. With four, the box – or even parallelogram — is effective in catching the corners and slowing the middle stream. And when faced with the highest volume, White says, he’s implemented the five-point box, with someone stationed in the middle.

As important as time management is the ability to read body language (if someone starts to back away, the deal is off), and being able to recognize if an interaction is going nowhere, and when to abort the mission. Far worse than getting brushed off, White notes, is finding yourself in a prolonged conversation with someone who clearly has no intention of giving squat, who’s just there to argue, or is interested in the issues but plum broke. In a town of strong political stances — and stronger eccentricities — this can be a challenge to navigate, a fact illustrated during several instances throughout the afternoon.

While some of the skills from his previous for-profit profession have undeniably transferred over, White insists that canvassers are not salespeople, however thin that line may seem. “A lot more passion and emotion is involved in canvassing,” he said. It takes more skill and thought, he adds. “We have to constantly reinvent ourselves. The political climate changes day to day. The cool thing about street canvassing is that there really are people walking around trying to figure out how to get involved. It’s the catalyst. What we do on the street is give people opportunity to engage in those issues. We politicize people on a day to day basis.”

It’s almost the end of lunchtime at The Cheese Board, and the crowd is thinning. Mitchell has had a few modest triumphs, but White’s still empty-handed. He looks restless, but there is still resolve in his stance and a heightened level of determinedness in his solicitations.

Afterwards, when asked if he was able to follow through on his self-imposed mandate of not leaving empty handed, he says he was — a small sum from a woman, accrued in the final moments of his shift. It was a rough day, he admits, but the token gift is at least enough to get him out there again tomorrow.


Newsletter sign-up

eLert sign-up

clear sky
56.3 ° F
62 °
51 °
60 %
0 %
57 °
59 °
63 °
62 °
62 °