“Have a minute for the environment? C’mon, I know you care about global warming,” says an attractive and bright-eyed Greenpeace campaigner outside a busy London Underground station. My stomach lurches, I timidly shake my head no, divert my path and then—then comes the guilt.
He’s right, I do care about the environment. But as an urban survival tactic, I strategically protect my personal space—both physical and mental. If I weren’t already late, I might stop and offer my usual internal justification to relieve my guilt: I agree with the cause, but not with the method.
Street campaigners and door-to-door canvassers toting clipboards are a familiar fixture in most cityscapes. An online job search for temporary work in virtually any city explains why: dozens of jobs promise young people opportunities to “pay your rent AND make a difference” or to “bring your conscience to work.”
The idea of street fundraising for progressive causes—as well as its suburban counterpart of door-to-door canvassing—was pioneered in 1970 by encyclopedia salesman Marc Anderson, who was trying to raise money for his newly founded group, Citizens for a Better Environment. As he told author and University of Maryland professor Dana R. Fisher in her book Activism, Inc, “If you can sell books to people door to door, you can certainly use the same discipline to talk politics and issues.”
Anderson was right, and in the decades that followed, most progressive groups followed his lead. But in a world where encyclopedias have fallen to Google searches and social media has the power to spawn viral phenomena like KONY 2012, it’s surprising that street fundraising remains so prevalent. After all, if I want to donate money to a social or environmental cause, the first place I’m heading is the internet—not to the guy interrupting my morning commute.
However, Graeme Newton, head of supporter growth for World Vision UK, says the reason many progressive organizations like his still use this method is quite simple: it works.
“If you go back ten years, World Vision used to put compelling stories on TV and people would call us to say they’d sponsor a child,” Newton said. “The world doesn’t work like that anymore. There’s [been] quite a fundamental shift in consumer behavior in that consumers—or in our case potential supporters—stopped believing advertisers; instead they’re believing their friends who they know and trust.”
For World Vision’s fundraising efforts, several components work in cohesion. Television ads and social media often serve as the preliminary impressions for potential donors and online campaigns work best in times of emergency appeals or humanitarian crises. Street campaigners though are often the final trigger when it comes to getting someone to sign up for a monthly direct debit—the bread and butter of most NGOs. Newton estimated that roughly 50 percent of what World Vision will spend on expanding its supporter base this year will be on face to face methods.
“It’s really important that we’re in the places where the public are,” Newton said. “We know that people do a lot of fact finding online and they do a lot of thinking on social media, but actually in a lot of cases, it’s only in a conversation where they can ask the difficult questions.”
Malcolm Carroll, network developer for Greenpeace UK, says the reason street campaigning persists comes down to human nature.
“We’re social beings and we like to see people's eyes—especially when it comes to giving money,” Carroll said. “You can give people all the opportunity to give money through social media and the internet, but the one thing that will put them over the edge is someone actually asking them: ‘Would you like to donate today?’"
But I wondered how it feels to be on the other side of the clipboard—to be the recipient of what are mostly refusals. The street campaigners from multiple NGOs I approached for this story were naturally enthusiastic to chat—that is until I told them I was a journalist, to which they said they were not allowed to speak about their job or on behalf of their organization.
A friend of mine—who, due to his inability to remember the specifics of a non disclosure agreement he signed prior to working with Greenpeace US and wishes to remain anonymous—said that on the whole, he still supports Greenpeace’s environmental efforts, but that campaigning wasn’t for him.
“I’ve been involved in environmental activism since high school, so the feeling of getting to continue that was pretty exciting and pretty cool,” he said “The work itself was really hard and really intense though and I can’t imagine doing more than the 6 hour days that we did. Ultimately, I was not an exceptional ‘ask people on the street for their money-er.’”
He quit when it was clear he was unable to meet his weekly quota. Based on his experience, he said the efficacy of street campaigning to raise significant funds is clear, but that the “culture of resentment” it creates in some people presents something of a trade-off to NGOs.
“In terms of income it’s totally worth it for them— having a monthly deduction from people’s debit cards adds up really quickly,” he said. “The cost that's a bit trickier to quantify though is that to their image.”
He was a direct employee of Greenpeace, trained by in-house staff members and paid directly by the NGO. However, it’s common practice for charities and NGOs to hire campaigners via third party, for-profit fundraising companies. Some critics, including author Dana Fisher, question whether it is disingenuous to present such a practice as grassroots activism.
“By hiring political professionals and national canvassing firms, campaigns fail to become embedded in the local institutions and grassroots networks of civil society,” Fisher writes. “As national groups increasingly outsource to a handful of intermediary organizations, the distance between the members and the progressive national groups that claim to represent them has become greater than ever before.”
In the US, one of the largest of these companies is Grassroots Campaigns Inc (GCI), whose clients have included The Sierra Club, the ACLU, Oxfam America, and Amnesty International. Started in 2003 by executives of Public Research Interest Groups (PIRG), the for-profit GCI has been hit with several lawsuits and complaints of labor rights violations, including not paying minimum wage or overtime.
It’s exceedingly important for charities that their fundraisers are well-versed in their respective organization’s mission and that they appear passionate about what they’re doing. However, that’s harder to ensure when hiring via a third-party intermediary.
Newton of World Vision UK—which hires via several different fundraising companies—said that in addition to having a full time staff member that’s tasked with training and liaising with the agency and new campaigners, World Vision is piloting an in-house team as well.
“If you simply engage an agency and say ‘sign us up this many supporters’ then you risk your fundraisers not being able to speak with the confidence and passion that you need them to be able to speak with—that passion is critical to our success,” Newton said. “While it does cost more [in time and money], having them in-house means they are part of the organization and they feel more connected to the cause and to the charity that they’re fundraising for.”
While working for Greenpeace, my friend did feel connected to their cause and the organization did a good job of stoking their volunteers' passion. However, he’s sure he’d never do the work again and remains conflicted about whether or not street campaigning is worth the impact it leaves on most people—the ones who walk on by.
"The unfortunate part is all of those people that avoid you see you as a representative for Greenpeace or a big NGO," he said. "In seeing you as someone they want to avoid, they cast a bad light on the NGO as a whole.”