Back in high school I worked for Colorado Citizens Campaign (CCC), a nonprofit that ran a “Good Neighbor Campaign” focused on the CEMEX cement plant in Lyons, Colorado. Our issue with CEMEX was its environmental impact on the community. CEMEX had multiple neighborhood complaints and EPA violations. Our mission was to activate Colorado citizens to pressure plant managers to make changes. Each afternoon we would gather in the office, pile into a large van, and set out to a different neighborhood in Colorado. We would spend the rest of the evening educating folks about our cause, collecting signatures, and asking for monetary contributions. I was the prototypical canvasser for any grassroots cause. We literally went door to door with a clipboard and backpack. CCC no longer exists, and I’ve not really heard or been able to find any results from our efforts.
Back then I honestly cared more about the experience and compensation. I believed in the message, and cared about the environment. Yet, I had no direct experience with the travesties experienced by the folks living nearby the CEMEX plant. Hearing stories of burning tires, and the statistics on EPA violations was indeed shocking and helped me to rationalize meaning in my work. Yet, I didn’t care how I contributed to making a difference. I only cared that I was helping and that by doing so I was making some extra cash.
Nevertheless, I did learn some important life lessons.
I learned of the generosity of people. As a canvasser, ringing a stranger’s doorbell and sharing a story for a few minutes, I was able to get a guy to give me a $320 check, and multiple people trust me with their credit card number. Many days I had at least a contribution from a donor of $50+ (sometimes multiple).
I learned how to quickly build rapport and sell something. To get donations from a stranger, you sell a convincing message. However, just as important as the message is the tone in which it is delivered. Scripting the framework of a conversation is important, but you should never script the conversation itself. You always need to mirror the person.
Reading people is important. Are they going to be receptive to my message? Customer service folks should listen up. I think there is value in pushing, but please don’t annoy people with your persistence when they are not receptive. There’s a fine line there. Instead of staying to convince someone, I was encouraged to move on to the next potential donor. Quantity is valued over quality in selling something.
People who weren’t interested either quickly declined or did not answer the door. There was only two bad experiences that I could remember. Fewer than I expected.
When someone is home alone, they are more likely to donate. They feel independence in their decisions without having to justify the expense to a significant other or family member inside the house.
Walking up to a person’s front door, you notice many things. You’re on the threshold of a personal space. You notice the wealth, the value someone gives to appearances, the quirks, their value of privacy, and so many other things.
I also learned how people do segregate themselves based on ideology to a much larger degree than you might expect. Neighbors are much more like minded than you may think. I always knew the neighborhoods we visited were carefully coordinated and planned based on past experience. We visited the Boulder area quite a bit. Boulder folks obviously cared about the environment, are open minded and generous. I could tell right away how successful the day might be based on the reception I had in the first few houses of the afternoon.
Environmentalists are a unique breed. I worked with true hippies. I was first offered weed working with these folks (I refused). Their political views were obvious. Back then I remember discussions about nuclear power and John Edwards presidential candidacy for 2008 (before his fall from grace).
Working on commission (partly true at CCC) or getting compensated based on the contributions we could gather is not a good a motivator. At least for me, I worked just as hard using all my skills even if my day started out well. On bad days, I didn’t change my approach. I think commission work often breeds bad practices and use of shortcuts. It focuses too much on the money side of things rather than the message we want to deliver. This is an absolute feeling where I’m sure nuances and exceptions exists.
I said before I didn’t care how I made a difference. In all honesty, I really don’t think my work was so impactful. Our focus on quantity over quality was more efficient and profitable. However, I doubt any “good neighbors” followed up on their contributions and we made some incremental changes, but as a nonprofit, I’m sure were expected to achieve loftier goals. Its definitely hard to create passion and move people to forge lasting change by asking them for a signature or for a one time contribution.