Is There a New Role for an Old Fundraising Program in this Recession?

April seems to be crowded with door-to-door canvassers raising money for various disease charities and other causes.  I give to some and not to others, depending more upon luck than anything else (the canvasser’s luck, I mean).  In the blink of an eye I make the decision to give the hopeful person at my door a “go away gift” or a “no”.  My neighbors who volunteer to go door-to-door in April get the go-away gift; everyone else gets “no”.  No one gets a gift that is truly generous within my own means.  Well, almost no one.

Several years ago, I was preparing dinner when someone from Greenpeace knocked on my door.  Being interrupted in the midst of a strategic and time-limited activity was strike one for the canvasser; his rather questionable appearance was strike two.  My decision was already made.  I waited for him to start his pitch so that I could find my opening to say “no”.  But he just stood there, looking at me and sizing up the situation.  I did the same.  Then he said something like, “I’m with Greenpeace and I’d like to tell you about our most significant achievement in this community in the past twelve months.  It affects you and your neighbors directly so I hope you will give me a minute of your time to tell you what we’ve accomplished.”

That was irresistible.  Of course I listened, I asked questions, and I got answers.  This canvasser, whose name was David, was very well informed and impassioned about Greenpeace and its work.  Before he had a chance to ask for it, I offered a donation that was definitely generous and considerably more than I had ever given to any other solicitor at my door.

This happened almost ten years ago.  No one from Greenpeace has ever come to my door since.  Maybe they don’t canvass anymore or maybe they just don’t canvass where I live.  But, soon after I made that gift, my name and address found its way onto their direct mail list.  I received many appeals full of urgent copy marked by exclamation points, underlined phrases and enclosures — none of which acknowledged that I was already a donor.  Every solicitation tried, in vain, to accomplish what David, the part-time canvasser, had achieved so easily.  I never gave to them again.

My company recently conducted a major study of American donors on the impact of the economy on their philanthropy and how they intend to give in these turbulent times.  There is a decided preference among donors to give to causes that benefit their local community.  There is a stepped-up requirement for a clear, limited case with evidence that measurable results can be achieved.  And, more than anything else, “being asked personally for the gift” tops the list of things that will keep donors giving in this very challenging time.

Canvassing has the capacity to deliver all three of donors’ requirements for remaining loyal in this recession.  But it has to be done right.  In over thirty years of opening my door to people soliciting on behalf of innumerable causes, only David from Greenpeace has ever pulled it off.

Showing 7 comments
  • Sharon L

    Good story but I still have never been comfortable with the door to door approach because the canvasser has no idea when it is a convenient time to speak to you. If someone comes to my door and it is a bad time, it will have the opposite effect in that I won’t donate. I am the CEO of a large local charity and that is what keeps us from going door to door. Instead, I send personal letters to our top donors keeping them informed of recent examples of how we are having local impact.

  • Chandler Branch

    Interesting story! I’d be curious to know about the Greenpeace accomplishments David was referring to when he asserted that the organization had impacted you and your neighbors. Wouldn’t it be great for arts organizations to (be able to) make the same sorts of claims?!

  • DRS

    Penelope’s story is perfect timing for our staff. We just had a major discussion about how important it is to send personalized letters that include acknowledgement of past gifts and how their gifts impacted our organization. Generic “Dear Friend” letters with no mention of past giving may seem easier and more efficient, but they are NOT successful. Thanks for the ammo I needed.

  • Susan

    I hope your dinner didn’t burn.
    I don’t like anyone ringing my doorbell at any time, especially during dinner/family time. It is too precious. A mailout with the accomplisments is my choice — so I can have a choice of when to read and learn.

  • Kelly Schukart

    This is so timely for us as we just began our first canvassing campaign. We have not heard of anyone else doing this in our community, but it has been successful for us. Most of all it has been a wonderful way to get our fundraising volunteers out talking to donors face-to-face. So far they are loving it!

  • Wendy

    I think it behooves us to have an impact statement that can be recited as if you were going to have to present it to someone at their door at dinner time! To have a concise statement of your accomplishments and what they mean is a practice from which all of us could benefit. Your “elevator pitch” can be very important.

  • Ken Wyman

    While many people hate door-to-door (and street corner) canvassing, they are remarkably effective because of the potential for interaction. No letter can match that human contact which allows you to adapt what you say based on the responses from the potential donor. These days canvassers would ask you to sign on as a monthly donor, and thousands of Canadians do. This is exactly the kind of message we teach in the post-graduate Fundraising and Volunteer Management courses at Humber: Don’t let personal prejudice about techniques affect your ability to test what works. Use a strong case. And make sure the donor records are up to date.

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