You Can't Escape the Canvasser's Pitch

'Got a minute?' The young bleeding-heart carnivores who hunt you down on your lunch hour

Siveski closes the ritual by asking each person in the five-member team how many people they plan to sign up in the remainder of the afternoon. "Just focus on getting that first one," he reassures everyone, and they all stack their hands atop one another for a moment of solidarity.

Morale-boosting is a big part of a job with so much rejection. It starts at the campaign's office on 28th Street, where the canvassers gather at 9:30 a.m. each morning. Their progress is marked on a giant wall chart. They get a daily training session with a campaign manager, a dancer named Maya Escueta, who might show them a video about the Darfur crisis, read from The End of Poverty by economist Jeffrey Sachs, or hand out statistics about the scale of humanitarian catastrophes ("Do you know that we could end hunger with just one-tenth of what we spend on alcohol or cosmetics?" Sarina asks).

There is also a lesson about compassion fatigue ("It's a phenomenon, I guess," says Siveski, rolling his eyes). The teams bid for locations—Siveski usually vies for Union Square—and then they hit the streets, but not before lip-synching to their favorite tracks: Chris De Burgh's 1986 hit "The Lady in Red" or Bonnie Tyler's "Total Eclipse of the Heart."

Siveski works his magic.
Andy Kropa
Siveski works his magic.

Siveski is only 19, but within a few weeks of starting the job in late June, he was promoted to team leader. He's one of the most successful in an office that includes about 60 canvassers (the number varies from week to week because so many people quit or get fired).

Although the Dialogue Direct website promises that its approach ensures "the fun stays within fundraising," about 40 percent of new canvassers quit in the first week, according to Dialogue Direct vice president Dan Mandell. Those who do stick with it, however, seem to enjoy themselves.

Dialogue Direct expanded into eight American cities in 2003. The company, whose client list has included Save the Children and the large anti-poverty charity CARE, is one of several organizations that put canvassers on American streets in the summer. Another is Grassroots Campaign, which is contracted by the ACLU and the Democratic National Committee.

And nonprofits are finding that the in-your-face approach often works better than more traditional fundraising models like direct mail, telemarketing, and expensive television commercials.

"You want to access the general public, and no matter how advanced your technology, the best way to access the general public is to get people talking to people," says another Dialogue Direct VP, Matt Bergin.

Dialogue Direct says that it signed up 23,000 people for three children's charities last year; its goal is to sign up 25,000 people to sponsor children this year. The ACLU says it signed up about 50,000 new members since it began street fundraising last summer—a big priority for the venerable organization, which has an aging membership base.

And those sign-ups are crucial to nonprofits, because the canvassers stopping you on the street don't want your lunch money. They want your credit card.

Canvassers try to get their targets to commit to automatic monthly withdrawals for a year or two—sometimes even longer. Getting that kind of long-term commitment through a direct-mail campaign is extremely tough, says Steve Abrahamson, associate director of membership for the ACLU. "Some things just require more explanation," he says. An interaction that lasts five minutes on the street may yield more than $1,000 to the charity.

And the canvassers say that sometimes they have even more success. DNC canvassers were buzzing last month about a man on the Upper West Side who had his credit card charged on the spot for $28,000.

Children International claims to pass 80 percent of the sponsorship money directly to the child in the form of social services. The organization currently generates more than $87 million in annual sponsorships, and 10 percent of new sponsors sign up on the street, says Dolores Kitchen, a spokeswoman for the organization. The charity enjoys a good reputation, though in 1998, a Chicago Tribune investigation of children's charities found that children didn't always receive the benefits that Children International claimed it had given them.

'People don't really want to do this,' Siveski says about the people he stops on the street. "You have to persuade." Escueta says that every objection comes from a certain place: "Either a lack of comfort, a lack of information, or a lack of empathy." She admits that dialoguers can be annoying, but adds: "I think Martin Luther King was probably a bit annoying."

A common objection that people raise, besides the fact that they don't have any money—something the dialoguers almost never believe—is that they don't feel comfortable giving their credit card to a stranger on the street. When that happens, canvassers will explain that the organization is accredited by the attorney general's office, adding that they could personally get sued if they were to steal a person's credit-card information. But Escueta doesn't think they need to go that far: "You can show them anything, but at some point they have to trust you."

Siveski, who is studying business at a university in Canada, says that street fundraising is a numbers game: If you get enough people to hear you out, at least some will sign up. "If you stop between one and two people, that's pure statistics," he explains. "Three to four, you know what you're doing. More than four, it's like you really care."

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