Canvassers: annoying, but apparently effective

IMG_6022Canvassers hustling for charitable donations in Portland say they had a tougher sell this summer, but you won’t see it in the numbers.

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A canvasser for Dialogue Direct working downtown Portland.

Canvassers hustling for charitable donations in Portland say they had a tougher sell this summer, but you won’t see it in the numbers. Nonprofits say they recruited as many donors as usual from street fund-raising campaigns this year, which means the not-exactly-popular “chuggers” — short for “charity muggers” — will likely be back in full force next year.

There are three main canvassing organizations working in Oregon: the civic not-for-profit Fund for the Public Interest and its associated nonprofits such as OSPIRG and Environment Oregon, and the for-profit Dialogue Direct and Grassroots Campaigns (GCI) (none would say how many Portland employees they have). The three organizations canvassed in Portland for seven clients altogether in the past year, including the League of Conservation Voters, the American Civil Liberties Union and Amnesty International.

Third-party canvassing campaigns are often criticized by activists and prospective donors because they’re costly and don’t pay off immediately. Critics say too much of the contribution pays canvassers instead of funding the cause, which is hard to swallow when the canvassers are mercenary solicitors. The ACLU, for example, pays GCI $180 for every 4.5-hour canvasser shift, in which canvassers raise between $130 and $150 on average. The contract GCI is required to file with the Oregon Department of Justice says GCI estimates it will receive 100%, and the ACLU zero percent, of gross revenue raised.

Steve Abrahamson, an associate director at the ACLU, says a canvassing campaign is a safe long-term investment that yields a steady monthly income. “It may not be valuable in the first year but the value over even 24 months is seven times what it initially cost us to bring somebody on,” he says.

But incentives are strong to sign up donors by whatever means possible, and paid canvassers sometimes obscure the fact that they are hired hands. Canvassers must meet quotas or lose their jobs, and are often paid a bonus or commission when they exceed quotas. Washington’s attorney general filed a complaint in July against the for-profit canvasser Dialogue Direct for canvassing without registering with the state and giving donors the impression that paid canvassers were actually volunteers or employees of a registered charity working to benefit children.

But Oregon’s Department of Justice has gotten just a handful of citizen complaints about canvassers in Portland in the last two years, and has not found violations other than a few late registrations.

Probably the most serious charge against canvassers is that they’re annoying. The Portland canvassers are so numerous and persistent that this spring the Pearl District Philanthropic Society printed a business card-sized response to solicitors that starts with, “I know you’re just doing your job,” and concludes, “I’m not going to talk to you.”