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by Chloe Johnson
It starts with a question to a passerby.
“Are you an animal lover?”
“Do you have a minute to help save the earth today?”
If the answer is “yes,” the questioner launches an aggressive sales pitch to get the passerby’s credit card information. If the fundraiser fails to net a certain amount in donations—usually between $120 and $140 a day—the ax falls, and he loses his job.
This is the world of street canvassing.
Every summer, young people with clipboards crowd the sidewalks of American cities trying to raise money for “good causes.” But these are not volunteers. They are paid workers, and they might not even believe in the causes they promote—much like the companies that hire them.
Companies that hire canvassers are not necessarily non-profits, and contrary to popular belief, canvassers usually are not just activists who do the work because they are passionate about saving the world.
They might just be trying to pay their rent—the job market for college students and recent graduates has stalled since the 2008 recession, said lawyer and San Francisco State University labor professor Bill Sokol.
“One third or more of people who get their degree don’t have jobs in their first year,” Sokol said.
The official unemployment rate for college students and recent graduates is 16 percent, compared to 5.5 percent for workers age 55 and older, Sokol said.
Meanwhile, companies like Grassroots Campaigns Inc., The Fund For the Public Interest (known in the business as simply “The Fund”) and Environment California always have jobs available, and they highly favor young workers, especially students.
A spokesperson from the job-search website Idealist.org, which focuses on the non-profit sector, said there is an influx of these types of positions every summer.
Canvassing is one of the easiest jobs to get, and companies usually hire anyone who applies.
Where does the money go?
According to the California Attorney General’s Office of Charitable Trusts, last year Grassroots Campaigns Inc.— a for-profit company—raised nearly $7 million in California alone. They have a client list that includes the ACLU, Planned Parenthood and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.
Only seven percent of its total revenue made it to the non-profit clients.
“Historical figures show that campaigns conducted by commercial fundraisers return to charities on average less than 50 percent of the contributions they raise on the charities’ behalf,” says a 2008 report by the then-State Attorney General Jerry Brown. “The remainder is retained by the commercial fundraiser as a fundraising fee, and for reimbursement of expenses.”
But when canvassers are inevitably asked what percentage of donations goes toward the cause, they are trained to always answer, “100 percent.”
None of the canvassers contacted for this article—primarily college students and recent graduates—could say what percentage of money they raise actually goes toward the cause. The majority quit or get fired within the first week, and even successful ones rarely stay on for longer than three months, they say.
Some of them believe that the intent is not even to raise money, but to be a “brand ambassador” for the issues, in the way other people might promote a brand of beer or a nightclub.
“We’re like walking billboards,” said Chris Smith, who canvassed with Grassroots Campaigns on behalf of the ACLU in the summer of 2013. “It’s more about marketing than raising money.”
Representatives for Grassroots Campaigns and the Fund For the Public Interest did not return repeated phone calls.
Sub-par treatment and quick turnover
Canvassing organizations also employ labor practices that have been called into question by many of the progressives they claim to represent.
Left-leaning publications like Democratic Underground, The East Bay Express and Daily KOS have all published articles exposing questionable labor tactics in the industry, such as paying sub-minimum wage, not paying overtime wages, exposing workers to dangerous conditions and imposing arbitrary quotas that are often impossible for inexperienced canvassers to meet.
A quick Google search reveals dozens of war stories from angry and disillusioned former canvassers. Then there are the hostile responses from the public.
“Lots of people are rude, and it takes a lot to get over that,” said Molly Hughes, a college student who goes door-to-door canvassing with Environment California.
“It kills your soul after a while,” he said. “People would yell things like ‘get a real job.’ Most canvassers break down at least once.”
Canvassers are more salespeople than activists, college student Celia Gonzalez said. She worked for Grassroots Campaigns in 2012 on behalf of Planned Parenthood. The company requires its new hires to memorize a scripted pitch and undergo a “training period” of three days during which they must raise a certain amount of money.
Although she did earn enough to help cover a shortfall in rent money that month, Gonzalez failed to meet Grassroots Campaigns’ quota and was not given a permanent job.
“In terms of outreach, I don’t think it’s effective,” Gonzalez said. “It could even be harmful.”
While employees working on commission are required by law to make the same minimum wage as other workers in San Francisco, companies that hire canvassers routinely advertise wages that are on the high end of what the workers will actually make.
“Most students who agree to work for these campaigns end up with more work and less money than they bargained for,” Ruthie Kelly, a blogger at Open Salon, wrote in a article from 2008 about Grassroots Campaigns. “There’s no way to predict how much—or how little—a canvasser may get in a given pay period.”
Employment ads for canvassing jobs usually promise $10 to $15 an hour, but in reality, most only make around the state minimum wage of $8 an hour, said Alise Coburn, who ran her own independent canvassing company in Los Angeles.
Numerous lawsuits have been filed against Grassroots Campaigns and the Fund For the Public Interest.
A class action suit filed against the Fund For the Public Interest in 2007 accused the company of withholding mandatory overtime wages. The suit was settled in 2009 when the company paid $2.15 million in damages to former employees, according to a court documents.
A stepping stone into sales
While some non-profit groups, such as Greenpeace, hire their own canvassers, most do not.
The non-profit Southern Poverty Law Center has used third-party canvassers to its advantage.
“They charge for a service, and we are paying them just like we would pay a printer or a telemarketer,” said Cindy Clark, a spokeswoman for the law center. “It’s been very beneficial for us, because canvassers tend to reach a younger demographic.”
While the law center is based in Montgomery, Alabama, Clark said the vast majority of its donors are from California and the Northeast, where most canvassers are hired. Clark even mentioned the Bay Area chain Peet’s Coffee as a good stakeout spot for getting signatures and donations from liberal urbanites.
While many canvassers have negative experiences, some use the job as a stepping stone toward a more permanent career—but not necessarily in activism.
While on the job, Smith discovered he had a talent for sales. The San Francisco State student switched majors from political science to finance after he spent a summer working for Grassroots Campaigns and now plans to enter hedge fund management.
Gonzalez also believes that she gained self-confidence and sales skills during her three days as a canvasser, but doesn’t think she has the personality for the job.
“You gain a lot of skills by putting yourself out there,” Gonzalez said. “But [a good canvasser] has to be a salesperson. It doesn’t necessarily help you to be an activist.”
Smith blames the negative experiences of many canvassers on a lack of having proper expectations set when they apply for the job. Most people who take the jobs are not aware of the skills that are required and end up disillusioned.
“Canvassing requires a very specific set of skills that most people don’t have,” Smith said. “Most people sucked and hated it. If you can’t do it, obviously you won’t like it. But it can be very, very fun if you like it. The point when you get them to contribute is a real high.”