The door-to-door canvass and the phone canvass

September, 1992
Ira Arlook, Ohio Citizen Action


Ohio Citizen Action has been shaped by the power of a highly successful tactic: the door-to-door canvass.

When Ohio Citizen Action was founded in Cleveland in 1975, it was called the Ohio Public Interest Campaign. It had only a small staff: no field canvass, no phone canvass and no members. Organizations come in many shapes and sizes; at the time the dominant model was the neighborhood organization.

A. The neighborhood organization model

Neighborhood organizing of poor and middle-income people dominated grassroots work in Ohio and elsewhere. The groups worked on local issues close to people's immediate self-interest, with the idea that over time the organization would be able to take on bigger and more fundamental issues. In some states, these neighborhood groups joined into statewide networks. Since this model required one or more organizers in each neighborhood, it was wildly expensive. For awhile, however, VISTA volunteers and church and foundation support made such organizing possible in some places.

B. The coalition model

The Ohio Public Interest Campaign chose a different model: a coalition, with a central coordinating staff and budget. Staff was responsible for finding resources and making sure the coalition agenda was carried out. Traditional coalitions, by contrast, had not been reliable since they depended solely on the initiative of coalition organizations to get things done. The new coalition model had a weakness, however, in that the coalition organizations -- mainly labor unions and labor retirees' organizations -- had to involve their members. This required a lot of staff and money, although not as much as the neighborhood groups.

C. The canvass membership model

Canvassing changed the Ohio Public Interest Campaign coalition into the Ohio Citizen Action membership organization. Modern canvass-based campaigns date from 1970, when reformer Dick Simpson was running to unseat one of Mayor Richard Daley's "machine" aldermen in Chicago's 44th ward. Simpson scored an upset victory, using a door-to-door canvass to great effect.

A young Simpson campaign worker, Marc Anderson, decided to use the same canvass techniques when he began Citizens for a Better Environment in May 1971, with David Comey, a Chicago attorney. Local civic and citizens' groups around the country learned of Anderson's success with the door-to-door canvass, and he began helping them set up their own canvasses. His consulting grew into the Hudson Bay Company, which now manages field and phone canvasses all over the country, including Ohio Citizen Action, Indiana Citizens Action Coalition, Colorado and Michigan Clean Water Action, the Rape Assistance and Awareness Program in Denver, Florida Consumer Action Network, Nebraska Conservation Council, New York's Citizens Campaign for the Environment, and Campaign Virginia.



Marc Anderson and his daughter, Britta, with some friends they made in DaNang, Vietnam, in February 2000. Anderson served in the 25th Infantry Division in Vietnam.

When the Ohio organization first started canvassing in the late 1970's, it was still following the coalition model. Accordingly, a "member" was defined as a participating organization. People who gave money at the door were viewed as passive "supporters." Meanwhile, the canvass staff kept growing until it had to return to the same neighborhoods more than once a year to operate year-around.

The organization began to experiment with canvassing the same neighborhoods once every six to ten months, though some thought there was a risk of becoming a nuisance to people, putting too much pressure on them, pestering them. The opposite was true. People liked more contact. They remembered the first contact when the canvasser made the second one. There was more continuity, and they welcomed additional information. They had not given so much money at first that they objected to giving again six months later if the canvasser could show that the organization had gotten results with their money. Members read the newsletter, were more aware of the organization and their membership in it, and had a more positive attitude towards the organization.

Clearly, people who feel this way about an organization are "members," even if they have limited time to commit. The canvass membership model redefines the organization in terms of its individual members, rather than as a coalition of organizations. Individual member participation has the highest priority in this model. The organization invests as much time, energy, and money as possible in communicating with members; chooses issues that best lend themselves to activating members; and conducts issue campaigns so as to involve members.

Only a fraction of the membership becomes active on any one issue, of course. After a few years, however, some members have at least one experience of being active in a campaign, and that changes them and the organization for the better.


D. Phone canvassing

The phone canvass started in 1984. There had been talk about phone canvassing for a number of years because people were aware of telemarketing. Many groups hesitated, however, not wanting to compete with themselves by calling members over the phone and then knocking on their doors.

Massachusetts Fair Share, however, decided to try phone canvassing with the help of a friend with telemarketing experience, who created the first phone canvass and then taught others how to do it.

Contrary to the fears about competition, the phone and field canvasses complemented one another. Field canvass revenues continued to grow after the phone canvasses started. This should not have been a surprise because the people who joined at the door liked the organization and most wanted more contact with it.

The phone canvass enables the organization to reach members between door-to-door canvass contacts, especially those who were not home when the canvasser would return to their door. The phone is a flexible way to get back to people if the canvasser misses them on a first phone call; the caller can keep trying until they eventually reach them.

Most important, though, the phone canvassers build on the relationships established at the door because they can carry on discussions in more depth. The phone canvassers have more time and the members do not need to learn who Citizen Action is or what it does. Instead, the phone canvassers thank the members for their contribution, describe what the organization had done with their money, give the latest report on the campaign, ask for more money, and offer ways for the member to participate more in the issue campaign.