Confessions of a Street Canvasser

This is a guest post from Mrs. 20′s (again). She enjoyed writing a guest post a couple weeks ago so much that she wrote another one. Enjoy her post – I sure did.

Have you ever been walking down the street in New York City, Boston, DC, Chicago, or San Francisco and been stopped by a young person carrying a clipboard and wearing a charity t-shirt?  This strange phenomenon has a name – street canvassing.

Inside Scoop on Street Canvassing

I am going to give you the inside scoop on street canvassing, because I was a street canvasser for a year.  Street canvassing is actually one of the hardest jobs anyone could ever do.  Each canvasser has to stand out on a sidewalk for 8 hours a day, try to stop everyone who walks by them by smiling widely and saying something witty, pitch about 50-60 people per day, and ultimately get 3-5 people to sign-up to give $20/month to the charity they are fundraising for.  Oh, and I forgot to mention that signing up involves the person giving you their credit card information.

As a street canvasser, you get rejected hundreds of times every single day.  However, in order to be successful, you have to continually have the most positive attitude imaginable or else people will be able to sense that you are not being either genuine or happy about what you are doing.  In order to keep your job, you have to raise an average of $3,000/day.  A colleague of mine signed up the CFO of NASA, and he told us that we had the hardest job in the world.

I believe that street canvassing has the highest turnover of any job.  Only 50% of people make it past their first 3 days.  10% make it past their first 3 weeks.  2-3% make it past their first 3 months.  Can you imagine doing this for a year?  Over my one year of working there, I raised over $500,000, and in five months of managing a team, my team raised over $1 million.

How Much Do Street Canvassers Make?

You are probably wondering how much street canvassers make.  Most street canvassers are employed by for-profit fundraising companies, so they actually get paid well for their work because of generous performance pay.  Each canvasser, depending on how long they have been with the company, makes $10-12/hour of base pay.  For each person they get to sign-up for the charity, they get a certain performance bonus.

# of sign-ups

Performance Bonus Amount

1

$0

2

$20

3

$50

4

$30

5

$100

6

$50

7

$100

8

$50

9

$50

10

$250

There was one day in which I signed-up 10 people (essentially raising $10,000), and on top of my hourly base pay, I made $700 of performance pay in ONE day!

Are for-profit fundraising companies legitimate? 

Now you may be thinking, I better not give to charities that use street canvassing to raise funds.  However, I would urge you to think differently.  From what I shared above, it sounds like I made a lot of money off of the charity through my fundraising, but that is not true.  I was only paid a fair wage.  I currently work for an educational non-profit as a manager in external relations, so I actually do a lot of fundraising and partnership building.  In my current job, I get paid almost exactly the same as I did when I worked for the for-profit fundraising company.  Also, my current organization spends 15% of its operating budget on administrative and fundraising costs.  The non-profit, that I fundraised for while street canvassing, only spent 12% of its operating budget to raise all of their funds.  This is completely comparable to non-profit fundraising.

Therefore, if you want to give to a charity and you see a street canvasser fundraising for this charity, please go and make their day!

Have you ever stopped to talk to a street canvasser?

22 Responses to Confessions of a Street Canvasser

  1. Interesting – I’d always wondered about the economics behind that.

  2. It’s great to hear from you again. I really enjoyed your last post.

    Occasionally I’ll stop to engage a street canvasser. But usually, I just make sure I’m talking on my cell phone so that they’re less inclined to try to stop me. I already know I’m not going to give a complete stranger on the street my credit card information. That’s a nonstarter. So, I don’t want to waste their time either.

    • John Green says:

      You give complete strangers your credit card every day at the local Starbucks, the grocery store, the gas station… and those people don’t have a quota to make or a serious need to protect your information in order to keep their jobs.

      Giving to a street canvasser is more secure than just about any other transaction I can think of.

  3. I see these folks all the time. They are always working the same corner and my conversation with them involves two words, “No thanks”. When you live in a big city you become programmed to say “No” very quickly to anyone trying to stop you, just for safety sake.

  4. eemusings says:

    Not for an extended period of time, no.

    Greenpeace street people in NZ get paid really well – $17 or so an hour (not sure about additional commissions/incentives).

    I did a trial/shadow day with a street fundraiser once. It didn’t take very long at all to realise I was delusional to think I could do it.

  5. Christa says:

    I always wondered if that was valid. When I was stopped in New York, I politely declined because I immediately thought it was a scam.

  6. I always wondered about street canvassers. Very interesting ‘insider’s’ perspective. Would you do it again?

  7. Whoa, I didn’t realize they get paid that much. I understand that there will be some not so good days, but for some reason, I always assumed that most were doing it out of the goodness of their heart.

    Now I feel naive.

    • John Green says:

      They deserve every penny they make. They have strict quotas and they get fired within 3 days of missing their quota. It’s the hardest job in the country to keep (if someone goes online to give instead of to the canvasser, for example, that canvasser gets fired).

      The pay they get is commensurate with the money they bring in for the charities they work for.

  8. I always wanted to know the deal with these folks. Thanks for some great info!! Can’t believe you did this for a year.

  9. YFS says:

    “As a street canvasser, you get rejected hundreds of times every single day.”

    This statement of true of any sales job. In financial planning we call it smile and dial.

    I’m surprised those people make that much money. I have never donated anything to a street canvasser it’s not personal enough for me. very interesting post.

    • John Green says:

      How is a face to face conversation “not personal enough” for you? The charities pay these people specifically because it is far more personal than direct mail or television ads, and also has lower overhead.

  10. Suba says:

    I somehow always assumed these folks are volunteers. I have never donated anything via a street canvasser. I generally don’t donate after hearing about the charity once. It has to pass a lot of my “tests” to get my money. Interesting to know how this works!

    • John Green says:

      A volunteer would never be able to raise any money out there. These folks have strict quotas and work hard to keep their jobs. You get fired if you miss quota for three days, and the quotas are high. Just think about trying to ask 50 people like yourself every day to give. You’d walk away empty handed.

  11. Thanks for sharing. I haven’t stop for a canvasser in years. I think I’m immune now.

  12. Interesting perspective Cory. I have to say my response is usually “not today!”. I never give money to someone without checking out the charity before hand.

  13. [...] too complicated. I’m making things easier on myself and switching to Mint.comCorey presents Confessions of a Street Canvasser posted at 20s Finances. Have you ever been walking down the street in New York City, Boston, DC, [...]

  14. A lot of my friends were street canvassers in college, thanks to a nonprofit that heavily recruited college students for this job on my campus.

    In their case, they were working for a nonprofit directly, and they were paid $15 for each person they signed up, plus a very nominal base wage (I think minimum wage). So they didn’t make as good of money as, it appears, canvassers working for for-profit companies would make.

    I noticed the huge turnover rate among my friends. A couple people hung in for the long haul, but most quit after the first week.

  15. Canvasser says:

    I’ve worked for Grassroots Campaigns for a while now, both as a canvasser and as a director. The company itself is a trainwreck; they routinely make errors with paychecks, fail to provide crucial information to new employees, have a hyper-aggressive and downright creepy recruitment strategy, and just generally treat their employees like crap.

    The organizations they contract out with, though, are excellent (if you’re on the left like me), and all of the money we raise goes directly to said organizations; canvassers are paid but don’t take a cut of the actual donation like many people think. The problem is that street canvassing is ineffective as a fundraising technique, especially when the charity is something the potential donor has never heard of (as is the case with some of the campaigns). Most people want to do research first, and donating online is far safer. Therefore, our day-to-day success is largely based on finding either die-hard supporters (who somehow aren’t already signed up) or financially irresponsible people. The directors conduct pointless daily “trainings” on skills that supposedly improve your success rate, but the job is mostly luck.

  16. Jeffrey says:

    I can see what makes this job so hard, and it’s one that I would never want to do. I’d probably go back to retail before becoming a street canvasser. But if it’s a job you can excel in, good for you!

  17. I was a canvasser and canvass director for Clean Water Action for many years. Its tough work, but overall I have fond memories of my canvass days… :)

  18. MNcanvasser says:

    Kind of accurate. I don’t work for a non-profit, but it seems like they get paid very well for being non-profit. Pitching 50-60 people and walking away with 3-5 people signing up isn’t very good…. Thats how someone gets fired, lol. Minnesota is one of, if not the most heavily canvassed states in the US. For 25-35 people pitched, I’ll sit at 7-10 sign ups. I don’t understand why some think this job is hard. Its not the Marines, lol. If someone is tired of walking, I’d say its the perfect job for them because they are obviously out of shape. I’m not saying this is for everyone, either. Just the other day, I had a guy tell me “I’ll kick your f’ing ass, fa**ot!” I smiled and said, “Have an excellent day, Sir.” Anyone can learn the job. But you need to be adaptable to different personalities. You have to learn to read people. You have to relate. Pitching a script is the easy part. If people just walk to a door, smile, and pitch, they are wrong. Thats how numbers stay low. People settle for the mediocre. If I come to your door and for whatever reason I rub you the wrong way, it doesn’t matter how good of a pitch I give you. Your mind is already made up. Most people see a canvasser and guards go up anyway. The first 5 seconds is the most crucial. I’m wearing shorts and a short sleeve shirt. I’m covered in tattoos. I’m standing at your door during dinner, your kids are yelling at each other and the dogs barking at me. The first thing judged when a door opens is my appearance. These are all obstacles needed to be overcome in seconds. There is an extremely high turnover rate. People try and live off of a little base pay. Its the bonus that you need to survive. A lot of lazy people and college kids take the gig to live off base pay. That base pay isn’t worth the idiots I have to deal with. (Not all of you… a minority in fact.) These short termers figure that out fast and leave. Which is good for me, because inside of a couple years, I’m looking at a six figure a year job.

Leave a Reply