Raising Money in a Recession: The Life of an NYC Canvasser 

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So what’s a fundraiser to do in this economic climate? Some are responding by amping up their “asks.” I’ve noticed that the canvassers near my office in Union Square have been pulling out all the stops to get people to stop and listen to their spiels, even more so than usual. Over the past several weeks, I’ve had canvassers block the sidewalk with outstretched arms, sing to me, and ask, “How’s the weather up there?” (I’m tall, but come on.)

I’m not the only one who’s had these experiences. “One remarked on my posterior,” said Angelita Paniagua, a former canvasser herself from Brooklyn. She’s also witnessed a canvasser jump in front of a group of attractive young ladies and launch into ZZ Top’s "She’s Got Legs." “Complete with guitar solo,” she noted.

Though sometimes amusing, getting the hard sell can obviously be off-putting. However, to understand why canvassers go to such great lengths to elicit donations, you need to understand a little about the business of canvassing itself.

Most canvassers are not volunteers. In fact, the vast majority of the charity canvassers you see in New York City are employed by a handful of grassroots fundraising organizations, like the Fund for the Public Interest or Dialogue Direct, which have been hired by charities—from the ACLU to Greenpeace to the Sierra Club—to collect donations from individuals on the street.

Most canvassers have responded to Craigslist posts that advertised “$600-$1000 per week” to “help save the environment” or “make a difference in a child’s life.” The promise of flexible hours, easy pay, and the opportunity to do some good each year attracts scores of college students and other New Yorkers looking for a paycheck.

But the work ain’t easy. As a canvasser, you’re on your feet all day, having to constantly project perkiness and come up with creative things to say. At best, you’ll be ignored by the majority of people who walk by, at worst, yelled at and otherwise verbally abused.

As if enduring a steady stream of rejection and outright vitriol weren’t enough, you might also be disappointed to learn that your paychecks are not always as fat as the job board ads would lead you to believe. Canvassers are generally paid some combination of an hourly rate and a commission based on how many donations they collect in a given day, plus are expected to meet a daily quota. Some people are able to make good money canvassing, but for many it’s difficult to make a living wage. “I was able to just barely scrape by,” said Laura Perna, another former New York City canvasser. “But some people made a lot of money. It is possible to do that if you have the right personality. In general though, you couldn’t live large.”

Indeed, one’s personality seems to have nearly everything to do with whether he or she will be an effective canvasser. Naturally loud, affable, and highly energetic people are going to be able to stop the most people, and therefore collect the most donations. So the more outrageous, the better. “You definitely are encouraged to get people’s attention by being silly or just saying anything that will make people look at you,” said Perna. “But within reason,” she was quick to add. “The idea is to get people to talk to you. You want to get their attention but not frighten them.”

That’s a difficult balancing act for many people. Perhaps unsurprisingly, most canvassers quit within a week of starting the job.


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