In these peak days of summer, many earnest young people are not taking jobs in a local mall or restaurant, but as an on-the-street canvasser.
On a recent weekday we found canvassers for Planned Parenthood the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), and the Red Cross each commandeering their own section of San Francisco’s bustling Market Street. On another day, Greenpeace trolled an intersection of Mission and Second. With each, the technique is generally the same: positioned in the middle of the sidewalk in a brightly colored, branded t-shirt, the canvasser targets you and then waves boldly, with a nice big, country-style wave.
Then comes the open-ended question? “Hello! Do you support gay marriage?” or “Do you want to protect our environment?”
Many pedestrians dodge them. Some answer imaginary cellphone calls. Then there are those who, perhaps out of sympathy, stop and let the canvasser recite their plea.
But even those who profess to privately support some of these causes find the strategy disturbing or downright irritating. “I support all of these organizations off the grid,” says Catherine, an artist and mother from Marin. “[But] anticipating being accosted on the street makes me hurry on by, or lie about which constituency I vote with.”
But one has to wonder, is this really the best use of a non-profit organization’s precious marketing dollars? How is this any different from a panhandler or an untalented busker banging a plastic bucket and calling it music? Does a “cause” make their use of the public sidewalks acceptable and how does this impact the retailers whose most valuable real estate is their front door and windows?
We had a casual conversation with one Planned Parenthood canvasser (we’ll call her Carla) who said canvassing is just one of the organization’s strategy for bringing awareness, but that San Francisco’s Planned Parenthood chapter is wholly devoted to canvassing. “The average American spends about 5 minutes a day on politics, so if you’re out there on the street it actually gives you the chance to talk to someone you don’t normally get to talk to.”
On a good day, Carla puts in a four-hour shift and of the hundreds she confronts is able to roughly 30 people to hear her out. She didn’t disclose how many of those 30 people actually make a donation or fill out a form.
Planned Parenthood puts heavy emphasis on repeated trainings in order to prepare canvassers for the broad range of questions they’ll receive. “We have trainings for how you’re supposed to talk to people,” says Carla. “So we’re not sending people out there who are saying things they’re not supposed to say. We have a very consistent training schedule.”
As for the merchants, they don’t really have a say, although some have complained. The general rule is that canvassers must stay fifteen feet from the merchant’s front door.
When Carla discovered that she would be quoted for this blog, she became terrified and immediately alerted her street partner. We tried to photograph them but they covered their faces and ran. Strange behavior when you consider that they are representing a perfectly respectable, public organization — so why be embarrassed or afraid?
We contacted Planned Parenthood as well as to the Red Cross and ACLU, but were unable to get a response from officials there.