Editors’ note: This article, first published in print during May/Jun 2016, has been republished for Nonprofit Quarterly with minor updates.

The following article is an adapted excerpt from CPD’s 2015 report, Seeding Justice, which can be read in its entirety at bit.ly/1TGNnCO.

IN THE FALL OF 2013, the Center for Popular Democracy and CPD Action (CPD/CPDA) launched the Sustainability Initiative in order to explore with our partners across the country various cost-effective membership recruitment models that could contribute to their greater financial resiliency. While foundation funding plays a crucial role in enabling grassroots organizations to achieve their goals, it ebbs and flows and, in most cases, comes with mandates that reflect the priorities of foundation leaders. In the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, many social justice organizations have been forced to rethink their overdependence on foundation funding.

Following the Great Recession, community organizations experienced a significant decline in funding from foundations, which had undergone profound and widespread asset losses. The subsequent decrease in funding has set a new—lower—normal for foundation funding of social justice work. Even as American giving in 2014 exceeded the previous high-water mark from 2007, giving to public-society benefit organizations still has not returned to pre-Recession levels.

Meanwhile, giving from individuals in the United States has risen for the past five years. In 2014, individuals gave $258.5 billion, exceeding the previous high-mark in 2007. Whereas 15 percent of total giving comes from foundations, 72 percent comes from individuals. While many of these individual donations were very large gift (greater than $200 million), giving by non-itemizing individuals, who tend to give smaller amounts, grew by 4.1 percent.  Yet, most social justice organizations have failed to fully leverage this revenue stream. Building a diverse funding base with revenue-generating canvass operations and small-donor programs can enable base-building organizations to scale up their work and enjoy a higher degree of institutional stability and independence.

CPD’s Sustainability Initiative aims to help the community organizing sector solve the core challenges of financial sustainability and scale. In the first phase of the initiative, from May 2013 to May 2014, CPD/CPDA partnered with seven membership-based organizing groups around the country to launch revenue generation experiments based on recruitment canvass operations and small donor fundraising programs. During this phase of the initiative, we also interviewed key staff at organizations with successful canvass and small-donor operations to identify best practices and challenges; we created a user-friendly training manual for canvass and small-donor recruitment staff at base-building organizations; and we completed the first phase of our experiments, providing sustained technical assistance and support to our partners.

Effective Canvassing Practices From the Field

CPD/CPDA and our partners invested in canvassing-model experiments as a means both to raise member-generated revenue and to deepen organizing relationships. Some organizations have already successfully implemented canvasses that provide a large portion of their total budgets and/or build their membership base.

For example:

  • The Fund for the Public Interest—the national training center for Public Interest Research Groups (PIRGs)—has a highly developed research and training program on revenue generation through canvassing.
  • Maine People’s Alliance has robust membership and fundraising canvasses.
  • Working America has a sophisticated electoral canvass model.

In preparation for the Sustainability Initiative, we reviewed these models and spoke with key staff at 11 organizations with successful and thriving canvasses. These diverse canvasses provided the basis from which the Sustainability Initiative seeks to advance a canvassing model tooled specifically to the needs and mission of base-building community organizations.

According to the experience of those we interviewed, the best canvasses build organizational power by engaging community members in four key ways:

  1. Identifying issues and getting feedback from the community.

A robust canvass is an opportunity for an organization to speak directly with community members about issues and campaigns the organization is working on. In particular, a canvass can invite the input of people who are not already active with the organization.

  1. Recruiting new members and developing leaders. A canvass is a mechanism to recruit new members to the organization and identify new leaders. Almost all of the organizations we surveyed had a consistent system to rank contacts from opponent to potential leader. New York Communities for Change recruits a large portion of their new members and leaders (including several new canvass staff members) from contacts developed on the canvass itself.
  2. Building power. Canvasses can introduce an organization to thousands of people. Those contacts may come to see the organization as a trusted advocate for their interests, enabling the organization to reach further than it might have before. Where those contacts become members, they build the organization’s power even further. For example, Maine People’s Alliance’s (MPA) canvass has yielded members in one out of every 17 households in Maine.
    “The biggest success is that we get to talk to a lot of people,” says Maine’s People’s Alliance Executive Director Jesse Graham. “When running full steam in the summer, we have a one-on-one conversation with over 1,000 people a day. We have this paying for itself for the most part, so, at the end of the year, we not only talked to a lot of people and have gotten them to take thousands of actions, but we signed up several thousand new members. And we didn’t spend a lot of money. We also are able to have the canvass support grant funded and contract-campaign work, so we have a bigger overall staff the canvass is also very effective in working on elections, which has allowed us to build significant power with elected officials.”
  3. Raising money. Canvasses can generate sustainable, independent income from members and from other supporters. Greenpeace, for instance, raises $10 million—or half of its total operating budget—each year from its canvass operations. Washington Community Action Network (WashCAN) raises about 70 percent of its budget through canvassing.

Key Elements of a Successful Base-building and Fundraising Canvass Operation

An effective canvass consistently strengthens an organization’s membership and financial base, while providing leadership development opportunities. Canvass operations are challenging to set up because their success requires a number of critical elements including:

  • talented, engaged canvassing staff
  • ongoing training;
  • data management; and
  • targeting and turf management.

We will explore two of these elements in details below. The remainder can be found in our full report. Talented, Engaged Canvassing Staff The success of the canvass depends upon a strong and motivated staff led by an experienced canvass director, who is the anchor of any successful canvass. The canvass director must be a strong manager and must be able to hire promising canvassers, train and support canvassers, provide clear expectations, and manage the administrative and data functions of the canvass. Among the organizations we interviewed, canvass directors most often were internal hires with direct experience canvassing and managing the field. They held stable, full-time positions, and few had been canvass directors at other organizations prior to taking on their current role.

While campus recruitment and Craigslist postings play a role in canvasser recruitment, the organizations we interviewed invested in developing pipelines for canvassers within their membership bases and through people who had canvassed for them before. In addition to actual interviews that help assess the candidates’ mission alignment, more than half of the organizations had candidates observe or participate in canvassing as part of the selection process.

All of the organizations we interviewed are breaking from the tradition of paying low wages with no benefits to canvassers. In addition to paying better wages, some organizations also offer health care and paid sick days. The organizations found that this investment made for more successful canvasses, significantly reducing turnover and providing canvassers with a sense that their job is important to the organization. In many organizations, a canvassing job can be the entry point to a career ladder to other organizational positions.

Successful canvasses must provide clear expectations and accountability for canvassers to ensure that the operation is earning back the initial investment and generating ongoing sustainer income. All of the organizations we surveyed have weekly quota systems. While 100 percent of one-time donations are generally counted toward a canvasser’s quota, organizations handle recurring or “sustainer” gift differently. Most credit canvassers with eight to 12 months of a sustainer gif towards their quota. For example, a $10 monthly gift might count as $100 toward the canvasser’s quota. In the absence of such a policy, canvassers are rewarded more for one-time gift that may be less valuable to the organization over the long term than securing a sustainer gift

When canvassers do not meet their quota, progressive corrections are implemented. Initial steps provide additional support to struggling canvassers. After repeated weeks of failing to meet quota, canvassers are fielded. On the other hand, canvassers who exceed their quotas are rewarded in most of the surveyed organizations with proportional bonuses.

The Rap

The rap is a crucial piece of all successful canvass operations. Some bigger canvassing organizations invest thousands of dollars in research to identify the successful elements of their raps. Other organizations rely on field testing and experience. In either case, raps are adjusted for each cycle of canvassing, for each issue, and for effectiveness—if something does not seem to be working, it should be changed.

Although the surveyed organizations agreed on the structure and key tactics for the rap, they varied widely on how canvassers are trained to deliver raps. At one end of the spectrum, WashCAN and Working America use a rap structure with key elements. They train canvassers on the flow of the conversation and brief them before sending them out, but encourage organizers to inflict the rap with their own style or emphasis.

At the other end of the spectrum, Take Action Minnesota drills canvassers on the rap so they know it by heart. Canvassers can then focus on other elements, such as body language and tone, while they are on the doors.

New York Communities for Change finds a middle ground, using what they call a “Choose Your Own Adventure” rap: The canvasser can decide which issue to focus on based on what they think will have the most traction with the person at the door.

Ongoing Training

Effective canvasses build in canvasser support through ongoing training programs, which start during the interview process. The training prepares canvassers with a deep view of the issues and with the tools to navigate a range of situations on the doors. The surveyed organizations generally followed a similar general training process:

  • Interview: Assessing if the candidate believes in the mission of the organization. Providing the candidate the opportunity to see the canvass in action. Evaluating the candidate’s ability to do the work.
  • Basic training on the fundamentals: Training canvassers on general presence and body language when canvassing. Introducing the rap. Providing opportunities to practice and get feedback.
  • Shadowing current canvassers on the doors
  • Ongoing training: Meeting for briefings before shift. Practicing the rap and addressing new questions that arise while on the doors.

Organizations sometimes bring in other groups to provide new insights and input in the training process. For organizations just beginning a fundraising canvass, inviting those with deep canvass experience can be very valuable in helping to hone their skills. The Fund for the Public Interest and Greenpeace both have training centers that provide systematic training. The Working Families Party has an innovative model for developing canvassers’ leadership. The core of their canvass operation is “the Bus,” a team of 20 to 30 field managers that take turns serving as project directors. By rotating permanent leadership roles, the organization is able to develop more field managers more quickly, and less experienced canvassers see more opportunities for growth to develop.

Case Studies of Successful Canvass Experiments

Our four most successful experiments were at New York Communities for Change (NYCC), Action United, Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment, and Take Action Minnesota. What follows is a description of our work with the first two organizations. See more in our full report.

New York Communities for Change

NYCC aimed both to improve recruitment of new members through a more sustainable membership canvass and to increase its ability to engage new members as active participants in the organization. To accomplish these goals, NYCC:

  • Restructured its canvass staff NYCC shifted its canvass structure from a 12-person canvass team working part-time ($12 hour, 25 to 30 hours a week) to a five- to seven-person canvass operation working full-time ($15 hour, 40 hours a week).
  • Increased training time and scope. NYCC increased training time with their canvass team from 45 minutes per day to 90 minutes per day. The extra time was used to train canvassers on skills and knowledge beyond basic canvass training, including more intensive campaign discussions and broader organizing training.
  • Integrated the canvass with neighborhood organizing operations. Canvassers and organizers met daily to discuss local campaigns and canvassers’ observations from the field.
  • They also focused on improving the transfer of data collected by the canvassers from the field to the neighborhood organizers.
  • Focused on signing up “full NYCC members” via $10 per month sustainers. Previously, the NYCC membership canvass focused their efforts on signing up “associate members”—one time membership between $10 and $60.
  • Restructured the rap. Traditionally, an NYCC canvasser would knock on 80 to 100 doors in high density low-income turf and have brief five to six-minute conversations on a specific campaign. The rap was revised so that canvassers were having longer, deeper conversations on the doors (12 to 15 minutes) that discussed not just a specific campaign but also the organization as a whole. The canvassers also asked contacts more questions about their specific community concerns.

The NYCC canvass operation ran for a total of approximately seven months, during which it achieved the following:

Canvass Shifts Completed 700
Doors Knocked 42,770
Contacts made 12,831
Contacts engaged/educated on major campaigns 6,260
Total full members ($10/month sustainers) 910
Total associate members (one-time dues <$120) 1,838
Total membership dues collected $ 87,253

The NYCC canvass was fully sustainable. The only additional costs were management and administrative costs (payroll, transportation). The goal is to eventually cover these costs as well.

Cost of all canvass shifts $ 84,000
Cost of management/administration $55,000
Total operational costs $144,000
Net Cost $56,747

In addition to a successful seven months of engagement and membership recruitment, the canvass also proved to be a successful tool to integrate with NYCC’s organizing department and grow its active membership. The canvas was used to turn out new members to several events and neighborhood meetings. A total of 273 new active members joined through the canvass.

NYCC feels encouraged by the preliminary numbers of the reorganized canvass operation and plans to further develop and expand the program moving forward.

Action United

Action United focused its sustainability efforts on developing a street canvass operation to build a sustainable small-donor base.

The organization defied its goals as:

  • Increasing the number of sustaining members of ACTION United.
  • Reaching a total of $5,000 in automated monthly income from sustaining members.
  • Utilizing a street, door and phone canvass team to increase visibility and awareness of Action United’s key issues.
  • Building and developing a team of highly skilled and professional canvassers.

To accomplish its goals, Action United invested in its last goal first. It hired a canvass director with several years of street canvass experience. The canvass director trained two canvassers to build the program. After several months, the canvass director left the organization, and one of the canvassers trained on the program was able to fill the director position and continue to grow the street operation. The canvass team comprised six to 10 canvassers a day, and each canvasser worked between three and five days a week. Action United’s canvass director, assistant directors, and field managers also ran daily canvass training. In the course of its canvass experiment, Action United exceeded its goals:

Contacts made 20,000
Contacts who have made one-time donations 3,500
Total full members ($10/month sustainers) 500
Monthly income from canvass contacts $ 6,700
Total contributions collected by canvasses $168,877

Lessons From Unsuccessful Canvass Experiments

Thee of our canvass experiments were not successful and folded within three months. While the results were disappointing, they also provide valuable lessons regarding what steps are absolutely necessary to start new canvass operations.

One common factor of all three unsuccessful experiments was that the field director did not have extensive membership or fundraising canvass experience. In two of the experiments, the canvass projects were managed by community organizers who had some experience in canvassing for membership dues or donations, but no experience in training canvassers on how to raise money and sign up members, or in implementing the operations necessary to run a successful canvass (such as database and dues processing systems, statistical tracking and analysis, etc.). In the other, the experiment was implemented by an organizer with extensive experience in running get-out-the-vote and civic engagement field operations, but no experience in membership or fundraising canvassing.

In all three cases, we attempted to provide training and consultation to the field directors—all spent between two and five weeks working with the New York Communities for Change canvass
team. However, it became clear that far more training time was necessary to develop the necessary fundraising and membership recruitment skills, as well as the systems required to operate a
successful canvass.

This suggests that one of the most basic requirements for an organization to develop a successful membership or donor canvass is a field director with at least two years of experience canvassing for membership or donations, as well as experience in managing canvass teams and supervising field operations.

These three organizations also struggled to integrate dues collection systems into their existing infrastructure. One had a very robust database that took weeks to customize to make sure that the canvass efforts were accurately tracked and connected to the right contacts. The other two had very rudimentary databases and no system for collecting recurring dues.

Although its canvass-based sustainer program was not successful in this round, one of these three organizations had tremendous success integrating dues-paying membership recruitment into its ongoing organizing work. In 2014, this organization recruited more than 1,700 dues-paying members and changed its membership dues from a lifetime value of $125 to a sustainer model of $125 plus yearly dues of $24. In late 2014, the organization began to enlist current members as sustainers in all of its organizing committees, and membership dues income surpassed $80,000. At the closing of the year, the organization launched an aggressive membership recruitment program attached to its efforts to support more than 10,000 immigrant New Yorkers who stand to benefit from President Obama’s immigration executive action. In the month of December alone, over 250 new dues-paying members joined the organization as part of this effort.

The experience of this organization exemplifies the need to carefully ensure that canvass-based membership and donor programs can be fully integrated into the organization’s culture, methodology and systems. As CPD continues to evolve its Sustainability Initiative, the lessons from this round of experiments will inform our efforts and advance the field’s ability to use canvasses to build the power and scale of movement organizations.

The Value of Successful Canvasses Over Time

One of the key challenges of building a sustainable dues-collection and small donor program is that it takes time—at least a year, often more—for organizations to break even, and even longer to recover the original investment and start accruing new dollars. The most successful programs account for this challenge and plan ahead, taking the long view.

As part of this initiative, CPD helped organizations project their programs over three and five years. These preliminary projections show that increased investment in data systems, implementation of follow up programs (phone, digital and mail operations), and ongoing training of lead canvass staff enables organizations to expand their canvass operations, increase the sustainability of these programs, and adapt their canvass models to advance other organizational goals.


The Sustainability Initiative was a successful experiment for CPD/CPDA and our partner organizations. Though our interviews with experienced practitioners, as well as our partners’ successes and challenges, we have refined a set of best practices that will hopefully be useful for other organizations looking to improve the effectiveness of their canvassing or to start up canvassing programs from scratch.

The most effective canvasses build organizational power by engaging community members to provide their insights, to participate in actions, and to contribute financially. In order to build an effective canvass, organizations need experienced, skilled field directors; talented, engaged canvassing staff high-quality, ongoing trainings that are integrated with the overall organizing program; effective data infrastructure; and a long-term strategy for achieving self-sufficiency.

Clearly, organizations need a lot of focused resources and infrastructure to effectively canvass. While this may seem daunting to take on, we hope our Sustainability Initiative inspires more organizations to think through how canvassing may be the right fit for their goals.

The Center for Popular Democracy (CPD) works to create equity, opportunity and a dynamic democracy in partnership with high impact base-building organizations, organizing alliances, and progressive unions. CPD strengthens our collective capacity to envision and win an innovative pro-worker, pro-immigrant, racial and economic justice agenda. Learn more at populardemocracy.org.