Sunday, October 8

A fair critique of canvassing?

My first job in fundraising was ten years ago as a door-to-door canvasser for a group called Clean Water Action. Not only did it introduce me to the intoxicating thrill of monitoring direct response marketing through statistical tracking... it also taught me important life lessons about how to make a efficient sales pitch and how to make confident eye contact. For the past 6 or 7 years I've seen several nonprofit organizations use outside partner groups to run door or street canvassing programs as an efficient and effective new donor acquisition technique.

Because of my personal experiences with canvassing programs, I was excited to read the new book by Dana R. Fisher called Activism Inc.: How the Outsourcing of Grassroots Campaigns is Strangling Progressive Politics in America (Stanford University Press, 2006).

The book caused a stir in parts of the nonprofit direct response fundraising community in August. While criticisms like this of the Fund for Public Interest Research Group ("the Fund") and Grassroots Campaigns Inc. are not new. Early reviews have seen the book as an indictment of the company, the technique, and concept of "ousourcing" fundraising. This book drew forceful response from the Fund in the form of a special website to refute the book called

I was disappointed and unimpressed with much of the book.

Perhaps, Greg Bloom is right that Fisher does successfully point out that "the Fund's model of human-resource-intensive subcontracting actually exacerbates the churn, even feeds off of it -- that those levels of attrition are perhaps even maximized, and that there are untenable hidden costs (both opportunity costs, in terms of interactions that could have taken place, and negative externalities, in terms of interactions that leave a bad impression on the participants)."

But in the end, I was more impressed with Jim B's lengthy critique on CounterPunch:

"Exposing" these facts through the recitation of anecdotes from canvassers, as Fisher attempts to do, is a meaningless intellectual activity: the assertions being made are not in question. They don't add up to anything, don't make any point about what works and what doesn't, or why.

No one is questioning the limitations of canvassing. However, Fisher is wrong to blame the fact that some democratic groups used paid canvassers as the reason John Kerry lost.
...we have to establish that the comparison between door-to-door canvassing as a tactic and the cultivation and development of a base of organized people as a strategy is meaningless: these two exist on different levels of political activity, and therefore different levels of analysis. Without an organizing strategy, the very best tactic executed to perfection is likely to be ineffective in altering the political balance of power. Canvassing divorced from any actual strategy for organizing people is not likely to produce anything significant. Yet these assertions do not add up to the conclusion "canvassing is useless" or "canvassing is counterproductive." Far from it. They simply acknowledge that organizing is what matters, having a political strategy you're trying to execute is what matters; and that door-to-door canvassing's role within that strategy must be determined based on an assessment of its utility in a particular context in the execution of your strategy. The real question, in other words, is not whether canvassing is remotely comparable, in terms of its results and its objectives, to developing an organized base: it is not, for the first is simply a tactic among other tactics, while the second is a bedrock principle of any winning political strategy. The real question about door-to-door canvassing, put broadly, is whether it is itself good or bad, useful or not.
The truth is that direct mail and telemarketing fundraising programs are also often outsourced by nonprofit groups. Activism Inc. comes across more as a hit job on a specific company and it fails to present a well-reasoned dabte on whether canvassing is a useful, responsible, and effective fundraising technique.

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