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.